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Fr. 527

June 18, 2014

For Geuss, in providing a philosophical justification for inequality, Rawls gave in to the powers that be in the political, economic and financial domains. Although the latter’s interests had been challenged to one extent or another by the counterculture movements of the 1960’s and 70’s, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice laid a philosophical groundwork for the conservative counterrevolution to follow. This is not necessarily to suggest that Rawls did so in concert with these powers or forces. Rather, a latent common ground was to be found within the two, and this as concerns the question of value-production. In contrast with his dissertation advisor’s doubts concerning the longevity of Rawls’ views, Geuss recalls Rawls’ lasting legacy:

Rawls did in fact eventually establish a well-functioning academic industry which was quickly routinized and which preempted much of the space that might have been used for original political thinking. He was one of the forerunners of the great countermovement, proleptically outlining a philosophical version of what came to be known as the “trickle-down” theory. Crudely speaking, this theory eventually takes this form: “Value” is overwhelmingly produced by especially gifted individuals, and the creation of such value benefits society as a whole. Those who are now rich are well-off because they have contributed to the creation of “value” in the past. For the well-off to continue to benefit society, however, they need to be motivated, to be given an incentive. Full egalitarianism will destroy the necessary incentive structure and thus close the taps from which prosperity flows. So inequality can actually be in the interest of the poor because only if the rich are differentially better-off than others will they create value at all—some of which will then “trickle down” or be redistributed to the less well-off.

Precisely because the powers that be seized on certain elements in common with Rawls’ justice, this same justice was brought to the fore in the field of political philosophy as the archetype of what a contemporary political philosophy with practical import should look like. In so doing, this dramatic shift in terms of tenor and background assumptions ignores alternative schools of political thought and theoretical counter-currents within both the English-speaking world and on the Continent. Only now, following the global financial crises of recent years and neoliberalism’s tribulations, are critics of political and social economy in a position to call into question publicly and volubly certain of the tenets underlying the neoliberal worldview.

Yet Rawls’ greatest sin seems to be, in Geuss’ eyes, the lack of a truly critical faculty, one which gets at the root of contemporary political phenomena, appearances and manifestations. More simply, Rawls confronts a common dilemma: whether and to what extent political philosophy should draw upon the imagination to formulation of a vision of the world other than as it is. So it is that Rawls falls prey to the charge of not having pushed back enough against the highly stratified and class-divided society in which he found himself.  Accordingly, the fault lies not in thoroughness of inquiry but in its very principle. From his presentation of the matter, one can infer that Geuss places himself firmly on the other side of this same divide and seeks to rectify the ongoing damage to the enterprise of political philosophy that Rawls’ own limiting choice ushered in. How might we briefly characterize Geuss’ view of the critical political function?

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