From the category archives:

Political Theory/Political Philosophy

Teaching Marx to newbies, redux

by Chris Bertram on December 17, 2014

At a meeting on refugee rights the other night, one of the other activists asked me if I am a Marxist. “No,” I replied, “though I used to be.” I think the last time it was a vaguely accurate description of me was probably sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It is hard to be sure. Not that I mind being called one, or think that being one is something to be ashamed of. In fact, I felt slightly sorry to disappoint my interlocutor. But things are what they are. So despite there being an irritating buzzing noise somewhere on the interwebs telling the world that I am a “Western Marxist”, I’m afraid I have to disclaim the title.

Nearly six years ago, I wrote the following as a suggestion for how to explain Marx to people (students) who were coming to him cold:

Suppose I were lecturing about Karl Marx: I’d do the same thing. I’d probably start by discussing some of the ideas in the Manifesto about the revolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, about their transformation of technology, social relations, and their creation of a global economy. Then I’d say something about Marx’s belief that, despite the appearance of freedom and equality, we live in a society where some people end up living off the toil of other people. How some people have little choice but to spend their whole lives working for the benefit of others, and how this compulsion stops them from living truly truly human lives. And then I’d talk about Marx’s belief that a capitalist society would eventually be replaced by a classless society run by all for the benefit of all. Naturally, I’d say something about the difficulties of that idea. I don’t think I’d go on about Pol Pot or Stalin, I don’t think I’d recycle the odd bon mot by Paul Samuelson, I don’t think I’d dismiss Hegel out of hand, and I don’t think I’d contrast modes of production with Weberian modes of domination (unless I was confident, as I wouldn’t be, that my audience already had some sense of those concepts).

Thinking about the matter again, I think I’d stick to those themes. Of course, then there’s the question of which texts would best illustrate those themes. It seems that some people believe those themes are best illustrated by looking at Marx’s early writings and that to do so would necessarily involve a distortion of Marx’s career bu concentrating on early texts. I don’t see it myself. When Corey Robin, Alex Gourevitch and I were thinking about freedom and the workplace, a central text for us was the chapter on the buying and selling of labour power, from volume 1 of Capital, you know, the one about “the exclusive realm of Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.” Thinking about human nature, work under capitalism, and its contrast with truly human work, I’d be sure to look at “The Results of the Immediate Process of Production” (included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of volume one of Capital). And central to explaining the importance of Marx to students of contemporary political philosophy would be the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Of course the themes you’d focus on and the texts you use are inevitably shaped by what you’re trying to achieve, the audience you’re addressing and similar matters. A comprehensive survey of Marx’s work, such as the two-year-long course Jerry Cohen ran in the mid 1980s at UCL (and which I was lucky enough to attend) would have a very different content to a taster course aimed at newbies.

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Detention, torture and standards of legitimacy

by Chris Bertram on December 11, 2014

Yesterday was Human Rights Day, and I spent the evening at an excellent gathering organized by Bristol Refugee Rights about the UK’s record on indefinite detention of migrants. Around 30,000 people every year, mostly men, are detained by the British state by bureaucratic processes without judicial oversight. Some of them include extremely vulnerable people who have been torture victims in the countries they have fled from. When they are detained, often after a routine visit to a police station, they then face a future with no certainty at all. Some people have been detained for up to eight years: as a criminal you’d have to have done something pretty serious actually to serve that long. And these are prison-like conditions, administered mainly by private companies with poor records (to put it mildly) of looking after the interests of those in their charge.

It wasn’t the only news on Human Rights Day. We also heard what we’ve long known, that the United States routinely tortured on an industrial scale after 9/11. And then we have the seemingly endless series of post-Ferguson stories of police ill-treatment of black Americans and the failures of the judicial branch of that state to hold such official perpetrators to account.

Meanwhile, here’s a commonplace statement within political theory about what “legitimacy means”. It is from Andrew Altman and Christopher Heath Wellman’s book A Liberal Theory of International Justice.

“a state has earned legitimacy if it is willing and able (a) to protect its members against ‘substantial and recurrent threats’ to a decent human life – threats such as the arbitrary deprivation of life or liberty, and the infliction of torture – and (b) to refrain from imposing such threats on outsiders”. (p.4).

In other work, on immigration, Wellman has argued for the right of states to exclude would-be migrants, just so long as those states are legitimate. The trouble is, that lots of modern states, the ones tacitly referred to by liberal theorists when they distinguish between legitimate states, outlaw states and so forth, don’t actually meet the criteria for legitimacy that the same theorists endorse. Here, I’m not intending a dig at Wellman, but rather a statement of what participants in these conversations presuppose when they enunciate principles, give policy examples, and so forth. But when we leave the seminar room, there’s not an awful lot of legitimacy in the world.

What should be our attitude? I’m not completely sure, but here’s a stab at an answer. As campaigners, I think that lowering our standards for legitimacy would be a mistake as these express important principles which politicians play lip service to on high days an holidays. Just the other day, in a much-promoted speech on immigration, the British PM David Cameron went on about Britain’s proud record of providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. Did he believe what he was saying? Is his capacity to hold contradictory beliefs that developed? Or is he just a hypocrite? We should hold them to the ideals they profess. But for other purposes, such as political theory, maybe threshold standards of legitimacy have to go and we should take a more piecemeal attitude, granting authority to states, including non-democratic ones, in some of their functions (directing traffic, macroeconomic management, maintaining public health) but refusing it to them as a whole? Piecemeal philosophical anarchism.

Two Great Parties

by John Holbo on October 21, 2014

I’m reading up on the history of party politics. It’s a nice question why Henry Bolingbroke doesn’t get more credit for theorizing the benefits of Two Great Parties. But, now that I’m tucking into his “Dissertation Upon Parties”, I’m starting to get a notion.

Dude did not appreciate that regarding Whigs and Tories as closely related independent causes, yet great, does not make it great to write in closely related, independent clauses. Ahem: [click to continue…]

Render unto Caesar

by John Quiggin on October 2, 2014

Of the three Jews described by George Steiner as, in Corey’s summary, having formulated a great and demanding ethics/politics, Jesus is to me the most interesting.[^1] That thought struck me while reading Jerry Cohen’s Self-ownership, freedom and equality, a Marxist response to Nozick. As Cohen observes early on, Marxists seem to have a lot more difficulty responding to Nozick than do (US) liberals or social democrats. That’s because the notion of self-ownership central to Nozick’s argument is closely allied to the Marxian idea that capitalism inherently involves exploitation (that is, extraction of surplus value from labor). Nozick’s claim was that the same is true of taxation, or any kind of claim on private property imposed by the state.

I’ll come back to self-ownership in a little while. The more interesting point, to me, is that Nozick’s argument was refuted in advance by Jesus when he was asked by Pharisees (arbiters of the law laid down by Moses) whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to the Romans. This was, of course, a trap, since he could be arrested for saying No and discredited for saying Yes. Jesus showed them a coin with the emperor’s head on the obverse and said “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. And “when they had heard these words, they marvelled, and left him, and went their way.”

Jesus’ point is just as valid if the coin is replaced by paper currency bearing the picture of a president, or rent from a land title issued by a state, or a dividend coupon from a corporation established under state law. All of these things were initially obtained from states under conditions that (in most cases, explicitly) involved the obligation to pay taxes as determined by the legal processes of those states. Someone who takes Caesar’s coin and then repudiates the associated obligation to pay taxes is, quite simply, a thief (of course, theft implies property, and vice versa).

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The Personhood Dodge

by John Holbo on October 1, 2014

Crooked Timber seems to be suffering from a deficit of posts. I blame excess of virtue on my part. I was going to post about that Kevin Williamson piece that has set everyone off. I noticed it before it was a thing! And now it’s gone viral. And he’s followed up with a Twitter thing about hanging women who get abortions. Lovely.

Here’s the thing. 1) He’s trolling. 2) On or about Monday afternoon I realized this specific style of trolling bothers me a bit less than it did a couple years back.

Possible explanations: [click to continue…]

Rawls, Bentham and the Laffer Curve

by John Quiggin on September 8, 2014

The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money (* or, in the 100 per cent case, not very much money), and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.

I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.

A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).

Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.

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American Exceptionalism – A Double-Edged Word

by John Holbo on August 30, 2014

I’m not surprised some conservatives are upset about the AP American History test. But I am bemused by the strength of the axiom Stanley Kurtz would oblige us to adopt, to keep things from getting politicized: “America is freer and more democratic than any other nation.” (Although, grant the axiom, and postulates about military strength, and theorem 1 – “[the US is] a model, vindicator, and at times the chief defender of ordered liberty and self-government in the world” – enjoys high probability.)

This is a comparative thesis about the international order, so it is noteworthy that Kurtz simultaneously forbids the ‘internationalization’ of US history. Comparative ‘transnational narratives’, the only sort of thing that could empirically support the validity of Kurtz’ exceptionalist axiom, are out! But I suppose Kurtz is just trying to avoid confusion. (It is wrong to allow that there could be empirical disconfirmation of any aspect of a result that has been transcendentally deduced from an impulse to amour-propre.) [click to continue…]

Ferguson, disorder, and change

by Chris Bertram on August 20, 2014

Watching the nightly demonstrations and confrontations from Ferguson, I was reminded of James C. Scott’s discussion in chapter 1 of his Two Cheers for Anarchism of the role of riots, confrontations, violence and disorder in effecting social change. They don’t always, or even usually, make things better. They sometimes makes things worse. But police violence, racism and radical social inequality are not going to be ended just by voting for the US Democratic Party, or even by a black President.

Scott:

It is a cruel irony that this great promise of democracy is rarely realized in practice. Most of the great political reforms of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been accompa­nied by massive episodes of civil disobedience, riot, lawbreak­ing, the disruption of public order, and, at the limit, civil war. Such tumult not only accompanied dramatic political changes but was often absolutely instrumental in bringing them about. Representative institutions and elections by themselves, sadly, seem rarely to bring about major changes in the absence of the force majeure afforded by, say, an economic depression or international war. Owing to the concentration of prop­erty and wealth in liberal democracies and the privileged ac­cess to media, culture, and political influence these positional advantages afford the richest stratum, it is little wonder that, as Gramsci noted, giving the working class the vote did not translate into radical political change. Ordinary parliamen­tary politics is noted more for its immobility than for facilitat­ing major reforms. (pp. 16–17)

What’s left of libertarianism? (slightly updated)

by John Quiggin on August 9, 2014

The NY Times has a lengthy thumbsucker from Robert Draper, repackaging claims by Nick Gillespie of Reason that the “libertarian moment” has finally arrived. Jonathan Chait takes out the garbage on the dodgy opinion poll that is the primary factual basis for the story. Taking the implicit definition of libertarians as voters who take a hard-right line on economic issues (and are therefore Republicans or Republican-voting independents), but are liberal on drugs and sexual freedom issues, it seems to me that if anything, the chance of a libertarian moment is over. That’s because:

(i) the equal marriage fight has pretty much been won by Democrats, with libertarians mostly on the sidelines or, to the extent that they have been part of the Republican coalition, on the wrong side 1

(ii) the same will probably be true for marijuana legalisation, and broader drug law reform before long. The recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington follows a steady expansion of legal access under “medical marijuana” laws. Again, this has been done almost entirely by Democrats. Libertarians were more vocal on this issue than on equal marriage, but they stayed within the Republican coalition, and did nothing much to shift the position of that coalition.

Once the issues of drug law reform and equal marriage are off the table, there’s no obvious distinction between “libertarians” like Nick Gillespie and Republicans in general2. The possibility of a libertarian moment, if it ever existed, has passed.

Update Some libertarian commenters are upset that I didn’t give their side enough credit on drug law reform (no, AFAICT, has made such claims on equal marriage). But bragging rights aren’t really relevant. When equal marriage and legalisation are faits accomplis the fact that some Republicans supported them all along won’t be an important point of difference with those who are still unhappy about it.

Further update A reader on my Facebook post points to this technolibertarian event, in which Nick Gillespie, billed as a “conservatarian”, features, along with Rand Paul and racist homophobe Cathy McMorris Rodgers. Relevantly for this post, the article mentions the tactic of emphasising libertarian support for drug law reform and hiding links to the Republicans. As I’ve argued, this is a tactic which will become obsolete once drug law reform becomes a reality .


  1. There’s still a chance of a loss at the Supreme Court, in which case the issue will come down, for the medium term, to whether the Democrats win the 2016 Presidential election and the Senate, thereby getting to replace the inevitable retirements. In this context, anyone who votes Republican, whatever their views on social issues, is effectively opposing equal marriage. 

  2. On immigration, the libertarian line is much the same as that of big business. As regards scepticism about war, the same is true of the realist school associated with The National Interest (they publish me, and some libertarians as well as old-school realists). Moreover, as Iraq showed, the bulk of self-described libertarians turned out to be shmibertarians when the war drums started beating (see Glenn Reynolds). On gender issues, the libertarians are at best ambivalent (on abortion for example) but more often than not, on the wrong side. Notably, on issues like Hobby Lobby, property rights trump the personal freedom of employees

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by John Quiggin on July 28, 2014

The concept of self-ownership came up in discussion as a result of my passing slap at Nozick in the post on Austrian economics and Flat Earth geography. I’ve been planning posting on some related issues, but I realise there are some critical points I need to clarify first, most notably on the relationship, if any, between self-ownership and property rights.

I’m inclined to the view that there is no such relationship, or more precisely that our inalienable rights over our own bodies represent a constraint on the legitimate scope of property rights, rather than forming a basis for such rights. But, there’s lots that I know I don’t know about this, and, presumably, more that I don’t know I don’t know.

The problems for me start with language. As far as I know, no one has ever remarked on the title of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yet the core of the book is that Tom owns neither the cabin nor himself: both are the property of his owner. And that brings up another striking feature of language (at least English). We use the possessive case to refer to Tom’s owner, but, obviously the owner was not Tom’s possession whereas, legally, the reverse was true.

The abolition of slavery hasn’t resolved the contradictions here: for wage workers, it’s natural to divide the hours of the day into “company time” and “my time”, while for house workers the common complaint is the absence of any “time of my own”.

So, some questions to start off with

First, how universal is the linguistic conflation of the possessive case with possession in the sense of ownership (Wikipedia suggests that there may be some exceptions, but the distinctions described are not precisely the ones I mean). And, if there is such a linguistic universal, what conclusions should we draw from it?

Second, have political philosophers looked at the question in this light: that is, on the relationship between the broad use of the possessive to denote relationships of all kinds and the particular use to denote property ownership. If so, what is the relationship between self-possession and self-ownership?

So What Gives? (About Tolerance)

by John Holbo on July 27, 2014

Philosophically, recent protestations by conservatives that ‘liberals are the intolerant ones now!’ are flim-flam. I say so. Brendan Eich. Hobby Lobby. Same-sex marriage. I get why they have to play it that way, trying to turn the tables. It’s such an obligatory rhetorical gambit it almost doesn’t bother me – well, most days. In each such case the most generous possible response is: no, you are obviously confused about what liberal tolerance is, or religious freedom, or you are confused about the facts of the case, or all three.

So I’m sincerely baffled that Damon Linker – smart guy! – is apparently taken in by this poor stuff. Indeed, he’s been banging on like this for a while now, at The Week [just follow the links in the one I linked]. He dissented from our Henry’s sensible line on bigotry some months ago, in a manner that made absolutely no sense to me.

That post got almost 10,000 comments. (Wow!) So it doesn’t seem likely that Damon (I met him once, so I’m going to call him that) suffers from a lack of people telling him that what he says makes no damn sense.

What to say, what to say, when I’m already 10,000th in line to read him the riot act? [click to continue…]

Ben Smith has a good suggestion, but I think I can improve it. The conservatives he wants to call ‘liberty conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-freedom conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘freedom conservatives’.) The conservatives he wants to call ‘freedom conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-liberty conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘liberty conservatives’). [click to continue…]

My apologies for the delay in posting the second half of my reply to the symposium. I was traveling. Let me repeat at the outset my deep appreciation for the insightful comments provided by the contributors to this symposium. This is the sort of exchange that makes intellectual life rewarding. Given the delay since the original postings, I did not want to assume that readers of this post would remember what was said in the earlier ones, and I’ve tried to write this in a way that will be intelligible on its own. I take up here the six contributions that I did not discuss in the previous post. I’ll begin with David Owen, Michael Blake, Kieran Oberman and Ryan Pevnick, all of whom have related concerns. At the end, I’ll discuss the posts by Brian Weatherson and Patti Lenard.

In various, sometimes overlapping ways, David, Michael, Kieran and Ryan have raised questions about my theory of social membership. To recall (or, for those who have not read the book, to summarize), the central claim of that theory is that immigrants become members of society over time and their social membership gives them a moral claim to most of the legal rights that citizens enjoy and eventually to citizenship itself. It is important to note, however, that I do not start with a general theory of social membership that I try to justify on the basis of abstract principles and then apply to particular issues. Rather I start with the actual practices of democratic states and ask whether these practices seem to make moral sense. It is only after I have explored arguments about particular practices that I try to show that the idea of social membership is a common thread in many of these arguments. Moreover, my theory of social membership is not presented as a full account of why immigrants are morally entitled to legal rights. I contend that immigrants also have claims to legal rights based on the duty of every state to protect the human rights of anyone within the state’s jurisdiction and based on other considerations like reciprocity and proportionality as well. I think that this way of doing political theory “from the ground up” differs from the approach of some of my interlocutors, especially Kieran and Ryan. My approach is likely to be less systematic and involve more balancing of competing considerations, but I think that it is more closely connected to ordinary moral views, even when, as in the open borders chapters, it leads to radical conclusions.
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It is an author’s dream for his or her work to receive the sort of wide-ranging, substantive, thoughtful and generous reactions that this symposium on my book has elicited. So, I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation to Chris Bertram for organizing the symposium and to all of the contributors, including Chris, for their comments. Among other things, I felt that all of the contributors understood my project and discussed it in a fairminded way, whether they agreed with me or not. That is not always the case in these sorts of exchanges, and I feel fortunate to have had this set of interlocutors.

I am dividing my response into two posts. In this first post I will respond to Chris Bertram, Jo Shaw, Kenan Malik, Sarah Fine, Phil Cole and Speranta Dumitru. I choose these six because all of them are concerned in one way or another with the approach that I use in my book and several of them are concerned with the open borders issue. The next post will be concerned with the moral significance of social membership (David Owen, Michael Blake, Ryan Pevnick and Kieran Oberman) and with the reasons why free movement within a state should be seen as a human right (Patti Lenard and Brian Weatherson). Although I agreed with much of what the different contributors said (especially the nice things they said about my book, of course), I’ll devote most of my time to their challenges and disagreements.
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The Ethics of Immigration symposium: index

by Chris Bertram on June 4, 2014

The first part of our symposium on Joseph Carens’s The Ethics of Immigration is now concluded. While we wait for Joe to compose his reply, here’s an index of the contributions: