Liberalism and Its Discontents Author(s): Raymond Geuss Source: Political Theory, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Jun., 2002), pp.

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RAYMOND GEUSS Universityof Cambridge

Westernsocieties find themselvesin an odd situAgents in contemporary ation. On the one hand,we seem to have no realisticalternative liberalism; to thatis, we know of no otherapproach humansociety andpolitics thatis at to the same time as theoreticallyrich andcomprehensiveas liberalismand also even remotely as morally acceptableto wide sections of the populationin Westernsocieties, as they arenow in fact constituted.'Liberalideaspermeate oursocial worldandoureverydayexpectationsabouthow people andinstituwithin which tions will and oughtto act; they constitutethe final framework ourpoliticalthinkingmoves. Primafacie nonliberalforms of habitualbelief, such as those associatedwith certainreligions,formsof nationalism,residual class enmities, and so on, still, of course, exist, but they seem to be, at best, isolated and localised foreign bodies in a universe,the overall structureof which is essentially liberal;in societies that are or are aspiringto be 'Western', even these nonliberalideologicalfragmentssometimesadoptprotective colourationin the form of the best veneer of compatibilitywith liberalism they can muster. On the otherhand,there are signs of a significanttheoretical,moral,and political disaffection with some aspects of liberalism.Liberalismhas for a potential;it is good at dissolving long time seemedto lack muchinspirational
AUTHOR 'SNOTE:Thistextis a revisedversionofan article I wrotein Germanandpublishedin December2001 in the DeutscheZeitschriftfir Philosophieunderthe title 'Das Unbehagenam Liberalismus'.The original Germanarticle in turn was the content of a series of three talks I gave at the Universityof Saarbriickenin December 2000. My thanks to Professor Wilfried Hinschof Saarbriickenforthe kindinvitationto speak there,and also to the colleagues in Camand bridge with whomI have discussed this topic mostfrequently,John Dunn, Zeev Emmerich, QuentinSkinnerI also owe a greatdebtof gratitudeto Hilary Gaskinand to the two anonymous readersfor thisjournal who helped me to correctseveral mistakesand significantlyimprovethe original Germanversion of the essav.
POLITICAL THEORY,Vol. 30 No. 3, June 2002 320-338 ? 2002 Sage Publications 320



traditional modes of life andtheirassociatedvalues, but less obviously good It distinctiveor admirable.2 fits at replacingthem with anythingparticularly all too comfortablywith some of the more ignoble aspects of commercial society. What contributioncould liberalism conceivably make to thinking Liberalideals about the general degradationof the planetaryenvironment? like individualism,toleration,or limitationof statepower,seem eithershortsightedly confused or mere covers for hegemonic designs. As the Harvard notoriouslywrote, 'Whatis universalpolitical scientistSamuelHuntingdon ism to the Westis imperialismto the rest'.3Oldercriticismsof liberalismhave also lost none of theirpower and plausibility:thatit has no clear remedyfor forms of inequalityof power,of conditionsof life, poverty,for reprehensible and so on. To the extentto which liberalismis committedto the principlesof individualinitiativeandthe defence of privateproperty, is hardto avoidthe it thatit is ratherpartof the problemthanpartof the solution.Politisuspicion cal theories, however, which, like liberalism, are deeply anchored in the social institutions,the mentality,and the form of life of large and wealthy populations cannot easily be shifted by even the most vigorous forms of intentionalhumanaction. This inertiaeven in the face of massive andtelling criticismis not merely the disreputable resultof the brutepower of the past; rather,in an uncertain,dangerous,and unpredictableworld there are good general reasons not to embarkon radicalchanges in one's social formation unless one is forced to it by demonstrableoverwhelmingnecessity. The title of this essay is modelled on that of a late essay by Freud.4For Freud we modems are condemnedto suffer from culturalimperativesand regulationsthat do not allow us to lead a biologically fulfilling life, but that we are also not able simply to throwoff. 'Discontent'with civilisation is an unavoidablefate, given the incompatibility betweenourbiology andthe necessary demandsof any form of specifically humansociety, and Freudthinks thatit is strictlyimpossibleto do awaywith it altogether; best we can do is the try to mitigatesome of its worsteffects. In contrastto this, the discontentwe feel with liberalismis of a differenttype, if only because we can be surethat our changes in the world aroundus, in our politics, our social arrangements, economic circumstances,or perhapssimply an improvementin our powers of theoreticalimagination,will sooneror laterdissolve liberalismandrender it as irrelevant us as feudalismor theoriesof moralitybased on honour.In to the meantime,though,we are stuck with a political and social regime and a set of associateddoctrineswhose deficiencies are palpable. 'Liberal' Historically,liberalismis aninventionof the nineteenthcentury.5 was originallya wordused to designatea politicalparty;it seems to havebeen used for the first time in about 1810-11 to refer to a group in Spain whose membersadvocateda limitationof the privilegesof the king andthe introduc-



tion of a constitutional monarchyon the Britishmodel.Expost, a legitimising of liberalism is constructed in which Spinoza, Locke, prehistory Montesquieu,Adam Smith, and others are made to featureprominentlyas theoreticalprecursors. Since at the latestthe middleof the nineteenth century, then, 'liberalism'refersboth to a relativelyabstracttheoreticalstructure-a collection of characteristicarguments,ideals, values, concepts-and to a in social reality,a politicalmovementthatis at leastpartiallyinstitutionalised Janus-faced historicalphenomenaof this kindthatencomorganisedparties. pass both conceptualor theoreticalelements and real social forces pose special difficultiesfor traditional forms of philosophy.Since its beginning,phihas oriented itself primarily on the analysis and evaluation of losophy but relativelywell-definedarguments, the strugglebetweencompetingpolitical groupsis not a seminardiscussion.Questionsof definitionandof purely theoreticalconsistencyareoftennotthe mostrelevantones to ask in politics.6


Classical liberalismis best understoodas a negativephenomenon,a reaction againstcertainevents, theories,andsocial andpoliticaltendenciesin the late eighteenthand early nineteenthcenturiesthatearly liberalsidentifiedas In especially dangerous.7 addition,this was a twofold reaction,a kind of war on two fronts. In one direction, as it were, vis-a-vis the past, liberalism opposes absolutismand also the cameralistidea that the state had the duty andthe rightto carefor the positivewell-being of its membersin an extensive sense. In the other direction,facing the future,classical liberalismstrongly by rejectsthe exaggeratedmoralisationof politics thatit sees as propagated the FrenchRevolutionaries.The ideological precursorsof liberalismin the of eighteenthcenturywere staunchopponentsof the subordination politics to theology,andto the extentto which an absolutistethics simply steps into the place thatnow discreditedtheology once occupied in the political and social it spherewithoutchangingthe existing structures, too becomes an appropriate object of liberal criticism. Rousseau's theory of the republic as the embodimentof a unitarygeneralwill opens up a highly insalubrious, specifically modernpossibility,thatof clothing political decisions with the mantle Kant'sattemptto groundpolitics on of an unlimited,secularmoralauthority. a nonnaturalist categoricalethics is understoodby liberalsas a parallelphenomenon and correspondingly condemned. Thus, for the early liberal
Benjamin Constant, Robespierre's 'republique de la vertu et de la terreur' is

a natural outcomeof takingRousseau'scentralconceptionsat face value,and



absolutistethics of the Kantiantype is just another,slightly etiolatedversion of the same basic position.8 There are four chief componentsof the classical liberalismof Constant, Mill, andde Tocqueville.First,liberalsassign a high positive value to toleration, as the cardinalvirtueof humansocieties. This is the oldest layer in the liberalsynthesis.Second, liberalsattribute to special normativeimportance a kind of humanfreedom. Society should consist as much as possiparticular ble of voluntaryrelationsbetweenpeople, andin particular, free assentof the the membersis the only sourceof political authority. Third,liberalsarecommittedto individualism: society is good only to the extentto which the india viduals in it are well off. Fourth,liberalismis characterised a particular by kind of anxiety,the fearof unlimited,concentrated, arbitrary or power.Limitation of such power is thus always a goal of liberalpolitics. These four elements constitute the political substanceof the traditionalliberalism of the nineteenthcentury. Since my intentionis to startfrom liberalismas a historicalphenomenon, it is important try as far as possible to avoid anachronism, is, to avoid to that the historyof liberalismfroman end-pointin the presentthatis posnarrating itively valuedand assumedteleologically as the naturalgoal of the historical process. Precisely this kind of anachronisticview seems to me to have become increasingly common in late twentieth-centuryliberalism, especially underthe impactof the workof JohnRawls. Startingin the later 1950s, Rawls's work gave impetus to a revival of political philosophy,a discipline thathadbeen pronounced moribund some of its most distinguishedpractiby tioners a few years before, and his early achievement,especially as documentedby Theoryof Justice9led to a corresponding the attemptto reinterpret of liberalismretrospectively the light of his position.This had some in history peculiarresults, given that Theoryof Justice (and the associatedearly writa fromwhathadbeen the mainline of ings) represented significantdeparture liberalthinkingin a numberof important respects. Firstof all, as the title of Rawls's majorearlyworkindicates,he placedthe conceptof justice at the centreof attention.Since 'justice'for him is the chief virtueof a humansociety, it is understandable he organiseshis political that arounda 'theoryof justice'. This, however,is a rathersurprising philosophy development.To be sure, justice was of great importanceto a numberof pagan thinkersin the ancient world-the qualification'pagan'is important herebecausethe Paulinestrandof primitiveChristianity once againdemoted justice (andthe 'law') in favourof 'grace''0-but I thinkit is fairto say thatno to particular saliency had been attributed 'justice'in the political philosophy of the modem period. The two originatorsof modem political philosophy,



Machiavelli and Hobbes, set the tone. For Hobbes, security and selfpreservationare the basic political virtues and the highest goals of politics. 'Justice'is a mereword,the contentof which is given by the law laid downby the sovereign;it is thusa highly derivativeandnot very significantphenomenon. Machiavellirecognises the varietyof disparategoals thathumanspursue and a corresponding varietyof differentconceptionsof the good and of the good life-there is the life of piety, of wealth accumulation,of politics. Even withinthe realmof politics, a politicalcommunityis the objectof praise on accountof its 'greatness',not its justice (in the Discorsi), and an individual is 'virtuoso'by virtueof being able to attainfame, honour,glory, praise, of thanfor being 'just'in mattersof the distribution goods andso forth,rather of or the administration given laws. The theoreticalupshot of the work of administhese two theoristsis thatjustice is a minorpropertyof subordinate trativesystems ratherthan the chief virtueof a society as a whole, and that defining charactertrait of the administrator, 'being just' is the appropriate orbureaucrat rather thanof the politicianor citizen. Tojumpforfunctionary, ward by several centuries from Hobbes, Marx, too, treats justice as an Eachsocioeconomicformationgeneratesthe conceptionof epiphenomenon. it 'needs'to allow productionto proceedas smoothlyas possible, and justice this conceptionremainsdependenton and has no standingoutside the mode of production question.Thisrelativetheoreticalinsoucianceaboutthe conin of justice is not merely a generalfeatureof muchof the most interesting cept of modem political philosophy,but it seems especially characteristic classical liberalism.After all, for Humboldt,Constant,Mill, and de Tocqueville, toleration, freedom, and individualismwere focal issues, but justice was either completely invisible (Constant),or at best a minor side-issue (J. S. Mill), or finally an object of some suspicion because it could be thoughtto presupposea unitary,centralisingview of society thatwas a dangerto individualism(Humboldt).Primafacie, it seems highly unlikelythatthe analysis of a conceptlike 'justice', which is so highly dependenton shiftingforms of economic activity and on historicallyextremelyvariableconceptionsof the good life, could give one any real graspon the centralphenomenonof politics. If this is correct,the Rawlsianprojectwas headedin the wrongdirection from the start, but even if Rawls's reorientationof political philosophy aroundthe concept of justice was on its own termsa philosophicallyfruitful move, it representsa singularlyunfortunateposition from which to try to rewritethe history of liberalism,a movementwhose membersoverwhelmingly had very differentconcerns. The second main element in Rawls's early programmewas a remoralisation of political philosophy. For him, in contrast to most nineteenthcenturyliberals,political philosophywas 'appliedethics', andthe 'ethics' in



questionis a complex andoriginalconstruction.Rawls is not in any interesting sense a Kantianbecause he has no room in his theory for such central Kantiandoctrinesas thatof the 'a priori',buthe is also at painsto emphasisea certaincontinuitybetween his position and Kantianethics, particularlyon two issues: the centralityof individual 'autonomy'and the priorityof the earlierliberalview, however,was one rightto the good." The characteristic of great suspicion towardthe intrusionof specifically moralcategoriesinto politics, and in particularof principled rejection of the Kantian ethics. Rawls's work had the curious effect of advancingKantto the position of a kind of patronsaint of liberalism.This is mildly paradoxical,because Kant hadbeen seen for most of the nineteenthandearlytwentiethcenturiesby the main philosophic proponentsof liberalism (Constant,J. S. Mill, I. Berlin; also Benthamand Dewey) as an archanti-liberal. Pre-Rawlsianliberals had two main objections to Kant. First of all, the concept of the a priori,which is structurally indispensablefor all forms of Kantianism,is not acceptableto liberals. Kant'sabstractconception of reason (whichcan in some sense be seen as the sourceof his doctrineof the a priori) constitutesan attemptto absolutiseaccidentalformsof thinkingthathapat time, andthusto freeze human pen to be socially important some particular at some given level. Because people at a certaintime andplace development all thinkthatmurderers shouldbe executed,thatall formsof telling anuntruth are intolerable,or thatthe rightsof propertyare incompatiblewith taxation, and cannot perhapseven coherentlyimagine any alternatives,these beliefs will be stylised as universalprinciplesandcircumflexedwith the hyperbolic radianceof the a priori.An a prioriphilosophyis for liberalsa fetteron human progress.A Kantianethics of unvaryinga prioriprinciplesis incompatible with the openness,flexibility,and willingness to revise one's view andadapt to the realitiesof the situationdemandedof liberalpolitics. Second, although both Kant and classical liberalismare committedto the value of freedom, theirrespectiveconceptionsof freedomareradicallydifferent.Most liberals are highly suspicious of Kantian freedom-based-on-reason and, in fact, thatthis 'positive'conceptionof freedomcan be used to jusstronglysuspect tify forms of totalitarianism.12 To avoid any possible misunderstanding this point, I am certainlynot on thata Kantianstyle philosophyis absolutelyincompatiblewith any claiming formof liberalism.To makean assertionlike thatwould be to makeprecisely one of the mistakesI am suggestingthat(some) moder liberalsmake,thatis, to assumethatthereis an essence of liberalismandan essence of Kantianism andthatthe two can be compatibleor incompatible.If 'liberalism'and 'Kantianism' are open concepts, it is not excluded that after a sufficiently long periodof time, it might be possible thatthe two could be made to converge.



Similarly,nothingpreventsus fromusing ourpresentconcepts anachronistically if we wish to do that,especially if we can give some plausiblereasonfor wantingto do it. WhatI do wish to assert,though,is thatas a matterof fact the in majorityof liberaltheoreticians the nineteenthcentury,anda not insignificant numberin the early twentiethcentury,saw Kantas an opponentof their basic project and that this is a fact that liberals who wish to be Kantians should recognise and take some kind of position on ratherthan ignoring. If they were wrong, why exactly were Constant,J. S. Mill, Dewey, and Isaiah Berlin wrong aboutthe compatibilityof Kantianismand liberalism?Whatever the best way forwardfor liberals in the twenty-firstcenturymight be, neitherKantnorRawls providesan illuminatingmode of cognitive access to the historical phenomenonof liberalism.

III To pass now fromthe historyof liberalismto its presentstateandpossible future,one sometimeshearsthe claim thatliberalismdiffersfromotherpolitical philosophiesthroughits recognitionof the pluralityof potentiallyvaluable modes of life. This is a highly misleadingassertion.Firstof all, liberalism has no monopoly on the praise of pluralism.After all, Marx, too, was convinced that the capitalisteconomic formationmade it possible for individuals to develop and participatein a wide varietyof diverseforms of life. Second, the multiple forms of life which liberalismrecognises are always assumedto be embeddedin an overridingconsensus thathas a latentmoral significance.Whatis distinctiveaboutliberalismisn't, therefore,so muchits openness to pluralismas its view thatall societies shouldbe seen as capable of attainingconsensus,despitea lack of homogeneityin the manners,beliefs, andhabitsof theirmembers.Can one give any reasonsfor adoptingthis attitude towardconsensus? It is not completely clear what 'consensus' means. The term vacillates between descriptiveand normativeuses in a way that is confusing.One can distinguishfourkindsof case. The firstis the case of simple empiricalagreement.We areboth standingin the rain,and undernormal circumstancesI will assumethatyou too know it is raining.The second kind of case is that of adaptivebehaviour,conformism,acquiescence, or modus area vivendi.People do as othersdo in some particular of life withoutgiving it much thought,or because they thinkthey must bow toforce majeure.Thus, certain Islamic groups in the United Kingdom no longer circumcise their young women becausethey don't wantproblemswith the Britishpolice and courts,despite the fact thatthey by no means agree thatthey should give up this practicethat they take, to use the now fashionablejargon, to be partly



constitutiveof their 'identity'. They just think they have no choice. A third case of group of cases concerns formal agreements,as in the paradigmatic In a contractall partiesexplicitly affirmthatthey will behavein a contracting. certainway, usually by transferring certainresourcesor performingcertain services. However,all partiesto a contractneed not have equally good reasons to enterinto it, and they certainlyneed not have the same reasons.Two people can agree on state-enforcedvegetarianism,the one for religious, the otherfor medical or sociopolitical reasons.The fourthpossible case of conhave the same reasonsfor agreement. sensus is one in which the participants Even if the agentshavethe samereasonsfor agreeing,it does not follow from thatfact alone thatthe agreementhas anyparticular normative valueor standTwo thievescan have the samereasonsfor wantingto cooperatein a buring. glary.If one agrees thatincreasingthe numberof personsinvolved does not changethe standingof any agreement,it isn't clearthateven the existence of universalconsensus need be anythingmore than one fact among others. One standard liberalline of argument tendsto runthe notions of 'consensus' that are prominentin these differentcases together.Effective coordination of actionis highly desirableif humansareto surviveandlive a life anyof them will find worth living, but coordinationof action requiresthat some kind of at least minimalandtacit agreementin values andnormativeconceptions exist betweenthe cooperatingparties.If the partiesdid not sharea large number of such values, cooperation would break down. Therefore, it is claimed, thereexists in every society a basic consensus thatcan serve as the basis on which furtheragreementscould be reached,therebyexpandingeven further humansocial spherein which freedomandnormativity the peacefully intertwine.Fromthis the further conclusionis drawnthatit is alwayspossible and rationalfor humansto try reach consensus with their fellows, or at any rate with those with whom they must regularlydeal.13 To be more precise, there are three variantsof the liberalthesis. First an empiricalversion: in fact, in every functioningsociety there is, one way or another,a basic consensus. Second, the politicalthesis thatit is alwayspossible 'in principle'to elaboratethe basic consensuson which social life rests so thatpeaceful resolutionof conflicts is possible. The thirdmoralisingvariant has a strongerand a weakerversion. The strongerassertsthatwe areall in some sense obliged to reachconsensus or thatit is alwaysrationalfor us to tryto reachconsensus;the weakerthat it is always a good idea to try to reachconsensus. Againstthese liberalpositions,MarxistsandNietzscheanscan makecommon cause. Nietzsche sees humansociety as a field of potentialand actual conflict, althoughthe 'conflict'in questionmay not alwaysbe a matterof fisticuffs but may involve only the exchangeof arguments witticisms.In the and



real world,Nietzsche argues,any existing 'consensus'can be no morethana reasonsandwith no moralimplitruceenteredinto for pragmatic momentary cations, and to expect anythingmore is a utopianhope. Marxistsin any case have always been of the opinion that irreconcilable and conflict, continuingdisagreement, social divisionarethe normalstatesof all formsof society thathaveexisted up to now.Apparent publicconsensusis the false (and thin) ideological cover thathides a chasm of division merely as thatis as deep andunbridgeable anythingin the humanworldcan be. In its classic form,Marxismteachesthatevery class society is dividedinto groups that not only have no common good but have diametricallyopposed basic and interests.Whatis good for the capitalistsis bad for the proletariat, vice versa.Only a classless society could lack socially entrenchedinsolubleconflicts of interest.In capitalistsocieties, politics-as-usualis a pointlessactivity for membersof the proletariat, the only sensibleway to act in the long run and is active engagementin the class struggle. For a varietyof reasons, the above analysis nowadaysseems out of date. of The thesis thatthe economically and politically relevantstructure a modem society can be exhaustivelydescribedby the contrastbetween capitalists is and proletariat no longer plausible.This should not, however,be takento thatliberalconceptionsof social harmonyand the unlimitedpossibilimply ity of peaceful consensus have become any more convincing, because the main problemof the Marxistanalysis is thatit oversimplifiesthe sources of conflict anddivision in the modem world.Insteadof one maincontradiction between workersand capitalists,there is an almost unsurveyablevarietyof groupsthatarepotentiallyor actuallyin conflict with each other,groupsthat in some cases have very sharplydefined, completely incompatibleinterests and control over considerablepowers and resources. In a given case, it may sometimesbe possible to attainagreementabout some points of disputein real or hypotheticaldiscussion. Sometimesthereis neutralgroundor a groundconstitutedby sharedbeliefs on to which one can withdrawto find compromises-sometimes, not always. In every society therearebothareasof consensusandareasof conflict. Both shouldbe understood naturalistically, individuals,social groups, and institutionsmust and learnto deal with both. Naturallywe often-but not always-have perfectly is good reasonsfor takingpartin discussion, especially when the alternative physical violence with opponentswho are strongerthanwe are,but whether case aregood, less good, or the reasonswe do (or do not) have in a particular ridiculouslybad is an empiricalmatter.'4 None of the threeliberaltheses aboutconsensus seems to me at all plausible. Firstof all, it seems obvious thatmanysocieties areperfectlywell able to maintainthemselves althoughtheirmembersdo not takepartin a consensus



thatis in anyway normatively binding;manypeople in manysocieties simply that with existing arrangements they mustendureas best theycan. Secputup the claim that it is 'in principle'always possible to attainconsensus is ond, untilone knows, in more detailthanhas ever been completely uninformative even if whatexactly 'in principle'means.Furthermore, providedby liberals, the claim were true,why shoulda statementabouta consensusthat 'couldbe attained'under some fictive or hypotheticalcircumstanceshave any direct relevanceto a given realpoliticalsituation?Finally,it is alwaysan open question whetheror not it is a good idea to enterinto discussionor attemptto reach consensus. If I am dealing with a small group of armedfanatics,it is by no meansclearthatI oughtto arguewith themratherthanimmediatelyandunilaterallydisarmingthem.To be sure,I will probablyhave variousreasonsfor tryingto do this with as little use of force myself as possible, buteven if I use minimalforce I won't be discussing anythingwith them, and a prioriI can't level of applicationof force will be sufficient. know that any particular

IV Which parts,then, of classical liberalismdeserve to be furtherdeveloped and cultivated?In the first place the criticism of theocraticconceptions of society or, what is anotherform of the same thing, of absolutist (that is, explicitly or implicitly theocentric)forms of ethics. The Kantianphilosophy is no more thanat best a half-secularisedversionof such a theocraticethics, with 'Reason'in the place of God. This does not amountto muchmorethana that Kant'sethics tries to The change of names.15 purenormativestandpoint relevantfeain a standpoint which we consideronly the normatively occupy, tures of a possible world, abstractingstrictly from the real world and the empiricalaccidents of concrete situations,is an expression of what Dewey In called 'thequestfor certainty'.16 an insecureworld,weak humansstruggle to reachsome kind of stability;the a prioriis an overcompensaconvulsively This is one of the origins tion in thoughtfor experiencedhumanweakness.17 devotionto 'principles',andhis of Kant'snotoriousrigidity,his authoritarian tendency to promotelocal habits of thoughtto constituentsof the absolute frameworkwithin which alone (purportedly), coherentexperience was any possible; thus, Euclidean geometry is declared the a priori condition of become demandsof humanexperience,and sadisticremnantsof puritanism reason.18 ClassicalliberalismrejectedKant'spracticalphilosopurepractical phy, but perhapsthis is not enough. Perhapsone should also reject the very idea of a pure normativestandpoint.



This might be thoughtto be a ratherextreme suggestion. Kantianshave some humanfailings like everyoneelse; these need not be thoughtto reflect Is negativelyon the purenormativestandpoint. thereany reasonto thinkthat the very idea of a purenormativestandpoint implies the attemptto absolutise accidentalexisting habits of thought? Ratherthantryingto give a directanswerto this question,I would like to approachit by discussing two examples. Both are drawnfrom the work of JohnRawls. As I said, Rawls was never a strictKantian,and as his thought and developed,he movedfurther further awayfromcommitmentto anyform of purenormativity. This is a further reasonto use him as an example:if some of the deficiencies inherentin adoptinga purenormativestandpoint visiare ble even in a philosopherwho has moved as far beyond Kantas Rawls has, this seems to me to give furtherweight to suspicions about the normative standpointas a whole. To startwith the first example, in Theoryof Justice, Rawls claims to be that describingthe 'reflectiveequilibrium' would be attainedby certainfully rationalagentswho engagedin discussionundercertainidealisedconditions. This state of reflective equilibriumis best understoodas a kind of successor to the purenormativeperspective.After all, the pointof one of the mainconstructions-the introductionof the 'veil of ignorance'- is precisely to exclude from considerationempiricalinformationthat might prejudicethe normativeforce of the outcome.It is, then,extremelystriking,not overriding to say astounding,to the lay readerthatthe complex theoreticalapparatus of Justice, operatingthroughover 500 pages of densely arguedtext, Theoryof eventuatesin a constitutionalstructurethat is a virtualreplica (with some that exist in the United extremely minor deviations) of the arrangements States.19 strainscredulity to the breakingpoint to believe that 'free and It rationalagents'(with no furtherqualifications),even if they were discussing behindan artificialveil of ignorance,andassumingthatthey were to agreeon anything at all under those circumstances,would light on precisely these Some criticsmightfastenon this as an indicationof the essenarrangements. tially conservativebias of Rawls's discussion:the theoreticalimaginationis employed not to think about alternativesto the status quo, but in orderto reproduceit schematicallyin thought,presentingit as the outcome of full, This mightseem grossly unfair,given Rawls'sevifree, rationaldiscussion.20 dent intention to produce a work that would have some powerful redistributiveimplications. If, however, one thinks it at all reasonable to judge what is afterall presentedas a politicalphilosophyby its actualpolitical effects, it is hard to see how Rawls's perfectly genuine redistributive hopes could have any chance of being realised-and not merely because Rawls has no theoryof political action or agency, althoughthat is also true.



The actualeffect of Rawls's theoryis to undercuttheoreticallyany straightforwardappealto egalitarianism. has that Egalitarianism the advantage gross failure to comply with its basic principlesis not difficult to monitor.There are, to be sure, well-known and unsettled issues about comparabilityof resourcesandaboutwhetherresourcesarereallythe properobjectsfor egalitariansto be concernedwith, buttherecan be little doubtthatif personA in a fully monetarisedsociety has ten thousandtimes the monetaryresourcesof person B, then undernormalcircumstancesthe two are not for most politically relevantpurposes 'equal'. Rawls's theoryeffectively shifts discussion away from the utilitarian discussion of the consequences of a certaindistributionof resources,and also away from an evaluation of distributionsfrom the point of view of strict equality;instead,he focuses attentionon a complexcounterfactual judgment. The question is not, 'Does A have grossly more than B?'-a judgment to which within limits it might not be impossible to get a straightforward answer-but rather virtuallyunanswerable: the 'WouldB have even less if A had less?' One cannot even begin to think about assessing any such claim withoutmakingan enormousnumberof assumptionsaboutscarcityof various resources,the form the particular economy in question had, the preferthe of ences, and in particular incentivestructure, the people who lived in it, andunless one had a rather robustanddetailedeconomic theoryof a kindthat few people will believe anyeconomisttodayhas. In a situationof uncertainty like this, the actualpolitical onus probandiin fact tacitly shifts to the havethe nots;21 'haves'lack an obvious systematicmotivationto arguefor redistributionof the excess wealththey own, or indeedto find arguments thatconto clusion plausible.Theydon't in the sameway needto proveanything; they,ex hypothesi, 'have' the resourcesin question: 'Beatipossedentes'. How, however, are the have-nots-or intellectuals speaking in their that name-supposed to makean argument dependsboth on convincingothers of the generalplausibilityof Rawls's approachand in additionon what cannot be more than a highly speculative evaluation of a complex counterfactual claim? That Rawls's early views have had no real redistributive effect is not merely a result of the usual difficulty of implementingpoliticaltheoriesin the realworld.The second examplecomes from Rawls's late work On the Law of Peoples. In this work in which Rawls discusses certainaspectsof international relations,he introducesthe categoryof an 'outlawstate', a 'regimethatrefuses to comply with a reasonableLaw of Peoples' (p. 90), and writes that 'France, Spain, the Hapsburgs-or, more recently Germany'were instances of 'outlaw states' (pp. 105f.). 'Outlaw state' is a slightly more refined variantof the term 'rogue state', which has come to fashionableuse in the contextof the attemptby the Bush administra-



tion to justify its missile defence programme,22 Rawls's claims about and 'outlaw states' are the philosophicalpendentof formerU.S. PresidentReaof gan's characterisation the Soviet Union as an 'evil empire'. At this late in his career,Rawls has moved very farindeedaway from Kantianism, point but this is still the sort of easy-going, but narrow-minded, moralisationthat some of the most interestingpolitical theorists of the nineteenthand early twentiethcenturies-Hegel, Marx,Nietzsche, Freud,Dewey-wished to put modes of dealing with an end to and replacewith morehighly differentiated and politics. For Rawls, it seems a truthtoo self-evident to require history mentioning that Spanish hegemony over Latin America in the eighteenth century was something utterly differentfrom and much worse than North Americanhegemonyoverthe sameregionin the earlytwentiethcentury.The BritishEmpiredid not always use kid gloves in dealingwith competitorsand neveran 'outsubjects,butfor Rawls it was, in contrastto France,apparently law state'. It also does not seem to occurto him even as an abstract possibility thatthe UnitedStatesmightbe consideredby some an 'outlawstate', despite a history of annihilationof indigenous populations, slavery, and repeated militaryinterventionin CentralAmerica(andelsewhere).It is hardeven for those of us who belong to the privileged, inherently nonoutlaw, AngloAmericanworldto resistthe conclusionthatthispartof Rawls'stheoryis significantly influenced by ethnocentrism.Naturallythere are massive differences betweenthe SpanishEmpireof the seventeenthcenturyandthe British Empireof the nineteenthcentury-who would deny that?It is also truethat politicians have a strong interest in distinguishing as sharply as possible betweentheirown policies (andthe actualeffects of these) andthose of their analoguesin otherstates-what is firmnessof purposewith us is repression in them.23Nowadays most moder governmentswill have huge staffs of who arepaid to seek out groundsfor makexperts,lawyers, and researchers distinctionsas vividly and convincinglyas possible. The ing the appropriate factthatoccasionallyin some particular extremecases one can'tfindanyconfor vincing differencesis not really an argument the politicalrelevanceof the strictlynormativestandpoint.In those extremecases in which adoptingthis standpointdoes deliver a practicallyuseful answer, we usually have sufficient reasonsto come to a decision of a varietyof kinds, and in most run-ofthe-millcases normativity gives us a cleardecision thatseems plausibleonly because the analysis that must precede the normativity judgment rendersa complex situationartificiallysimple and perspicuous.This analysis, which eventuatesin thejudgment 'this is murder','this is fraud',and so on, is what is actuallydoing the work. The historicalstruggleagainsttheocracy,absolutism,and dogmatismhas left behindin liberalisma thick deposit of scepticism not only vis-a-vis all-



encompassingworldviews,butalso vis-a-vis universalist politicaltheoriesof kind. On this point Constant,Berlin, Popper,and Rorty (and also, of any course, Burke) are of one accord.Classical liberalismdid not wish to be an all-encompassing,universal worldview but merely a political programme aimed at eliminatingspecific social and political evils. In its origin, liberalismhad no ambitionto be universaleitherin the sense of claiming to be valid for everyoneand every humansociety or in the sense of purporting give an answerto all the important to questionsof humanlife. There is no clearly developed single epistemology for classical liberalism, but it would seem that a liberal would have to believe that liberal views are easily accessible to humanswho have no special expertiseor epistemically privilegedposition. The ideal of liberalismis a practicallyengagedpolitical philosophythatis bothepistemicallyandmorallyhighly abstemious.Thatis, at best, a very difficultandpossibly a completelyhopeless project.It is therefore not surprising liberalssuccumbagainandagainto the temptationto that the limits they would ideally set themselvesandtryto makeof libgo beyond eralisma complete philosophyof life. Forcomplicatedhistoricalreasons,in the middle of the twentiethcentury,Kantianismpresenteditself as a 'philosophicalfoundation'for a versionof liberalism,andliberalsat thattime were sufficiently weak and self-deceived (or strong and opportunistic)to accept the offer.Even with the infusionof a significantdose of the Kantianphilosophy, however, liberalismhas not succeeded in producinga position that is 'universal'in any relevantsense. Neither has it demonstratedan ability to remainfaithfulto its originaltheoreticaland moral abstemiousnesswithout losing political effectiveness. Rorty has made the extremely astute and importantobservationthat the a priori,theocentrism(even in its attenuatedform as a 'philosophy of reason'), the purely normativestandpoint,and a specific form of the 'spiritof all heaviness'24 naturallygo together.A consistentliberalismwould have to turnits back on all of them. of Unfortunately, Rorty strongly suggests an interpretation this observation thatdoes not dojustice to it, andhe seems to drawfromthis interpretation two false consequences.Firstof all, Rortyis obviouslykeen to promoteirony as the most appropriate attitudefor a contemporary liberal.While, however, it is truethatthe rejectionof a theocentricview of the world will most likely bring with it a discreditingof a certainnumberof humanattitudesthatwere closely associated with it-automatic deference to authority,attractionto certainkinds of solemnity,unctiousness,andobscurantism-irony is not the only alternativeto piety. Anotheralternativeis to adopt an extremelybusinesslike attitude,to identify oneself fully with variousprojectsin the world,



and so forth.Indeed,looking at the matterhistorically,therewould not seem to be any particular naturalaffinitybetween liberalismandirony.If one considersthe most significantironistsof the moder period-Pascal (in the 'LettresProvinciales'),Swift, Voltaire,Kierkegaard-only Voltaireseems in any of way a precursor liberalism,andI thinkone would searchin vain important in the writingsof the majorfiguresof liberalism(Humboldt,Constant,Mill) for tracesof irony.In fact, the only obvious 'ironist'amongthe political philosophersof the nineteenthcenturyis de Maistre,who was anythingbuta liberal.Whende Maistrein a famouspassage25 reportsthatthe executionerafter home in a self-satisfiedmood, sayingto himhis functionreturns discharging self, 'No one can breaka man on the wheel as well as I can', this is an archetypicalinstanceof whatwe usuallycall Maistreis invitingus hereto look at this situation simultaneouslyfrom three distinct perspectives that conflict. Thereis the point of view of the executionerhimself ('the only man who wearsgloves in church');the pointof view of (post-Beccarian) common sense, which finds the executioner (and his family) repellent and his selfsatisfactionnauseous;andfinally the pointof view of God, who sees the executioneras the necessarycentralpoint of any society, holding it all together and making civilised life possible. 'Ironically', the executioner is (from God's point of view and, therefore,also de Maistre'sto some extent) right, not perhapsright to be self-satisfied, but right to glory in the efficient discharge of a dignified and commodious office. The examples of de Maistre and Kierkegaard show thatirony is not in itself inherentlyincompatible also with a theocentricview of the world. Rorty to be sure would be unmovedby all this, because he is not using 'irony'in the normalsense in which we use thatterm-which is admittedly hardto grasp-but ratherhe is engaged in the projectof 'using old wordsin new senses'26 so as to breakdown existing vocabularies.Rather,for him an in ironistis someonewho has doubtsaboutthe existing 'final'vocabulary use in society and 'does not believe that her vocabularyis closer to reality than
others, that it is in touch with a power not herself'.27 On this use of the term,

are neitherPlato, de Maistre,nor Kierkegaard ironists,a consequencethatI thinkRortywouldwelcome. Nor,althoughI thinkRortywoulddisagreewith Most oddly of all, Heideggerturnsout on this readingto be an me, is Hegel.28 ironist,a claim thatwill not, I think,immediatelyrecommenditself to anyone who has followed the earth-heavyfootfall of the Sage of Messkirchthrough any of his worksandwho retainsa graspon any of the senses 'irony'has had None of this, again,would botherRortyin Europeanlife since antiquity.29 of course, breakingdown the old vocabularywill generate paradoxeslike this, and my pointingthem out is just partof my strategyof being, in Rorty's eyes, conventionaland boring, or of rejigging the meaningof 'irony'to suit



or my own purposes.If, however,'irony',in the traditional the Rortyansense, is not the only possible attitudewe can adoptif we wantto avoidpiety, andif differentfrom whatthe tradition would have 'irony'in Rorty'ssense is rather called 'irony',it is hardto avoidaskingwhy we shouldaccede to Rorty'ssuggestion. And to answer this in turn,it might be useful to think about what motivatesRortyto makethis suggestionandwhatthe consequencesof adopting it wouldbe. This bringsme to the secondplace in which he seems to me to pointus in the wrongdirection.I thinkhis motivationis to detachus as much as possible from trying to approachpolitics theoreticallyand to denigrate political action in a very subtle and sophisticatedway. Ironystandsorthogonal to any form of active, practicalengagementwith the world. It is a luxury of people who do not pressingly have to act, the kind of people Rorty calls with admiration'bookishintellectuals',andwhom he wishes to encourageto find self-realisationin privatelife, not politics.30 This is why it is particularly that Socrates and Kierkegaard,who thought they did in some impressive sense have to act, also allowed themselves to indulge in irony. An 'ironic' executionis eitherno executionat all (buta literaryor theatrical event),or it is a form of attemptedadditionalmockery of the victim, or both at the same time: 'Thisis Jesus,King of the Jews'. The Christian thinksthatthis is doubly ironic, and that the joke is finally on Pilate. The liberal who gives up the sanctimoniousnessof the purely normative will perhaps,as Rortycorrectlyrecognises, standat a certainkind standpoint of distanceto some kinds of beliefs, butthe attitudeinvolvedin this does not seem appropriately by captured calling it either 'irony'or (anotheroldercontender) 'scepticism'. With this, one is returnedto the issue from which I started, namely,whatattitudewe shouldadopttowardliberalism.This cannot be completely separatedfrom questions about the intentions of liberalism andhow to describethe kinds of attitudesthatare,havebeen, or mighteasily be or have been associatedwith existing forms of liberalism.Ironywill not allow the rightkind of theoreticallyreflective, engaged political practice. Some will (correctly) object that the demand that I made earlier that be anachronism avoidedis an ideal impossible fully to attain.Of course, the account of 'liberalism'I have given is a selective one-an ideal type-that arises from emphasising certain features and downplayingothers, and the choice of what to emphasise to some extent depends on what I judge to be philosophicallyfruitfuland morallyand politically valuable.We all have no alternative to constructthe past in the light of what we taketo be a viable but future, but it does not follow from this that all constructionsare equally for standards judgenlighteningor thatthe usualempiricalanddocumentary ing historical accounts are irrelevant.The anti-Kantianand anti-Rawlsian perspectivehas, in my view, a twofold advantage.It is a betterguide to liber-



alism as a historicalphenomenon,thatis, one thatallow us to attaina fuller, moredetailed,andmorecorrectunderstanding its history,andit also at the of same time provides a more promising orientationfor thinking and acting politically in the future. As long as the real social, economic, andpoliticalinstitutionsandcircumstances of our life do not change,31 cannot expect to rid ourselves comwe of our discontent with liberalism. This might, however, even be pletely the thoughtto be a vindicationof one strandin the liberaltradition, strandthat is action-orientedbut reflexively anti-utopianand asserts that no system eitherof actionor thoughtis perfect.This shouldhold as muchfor liberalism as for anythingelse. This kindof discontent,then,mightnot necessarilybe an objectionbut a sign of the continuingvitality of this tradition.

1. John Dunn, WesternPolitical Thoughtin the Face of the Future, 2d ed. (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 1993). 2. Alastair MacIntyre,After Virtue(London: Duckworth, 1981); FriedrichNietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Bise, in Kritische Studien-Ausgabe,ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montanari(Berlin:de Gruyter,1980), vol. 5, ?260 and Zur Genealogie der Moral in Kritische ed. (Berlin:de Gruyter,1980), vol. 5, Studien-Ausgabe, Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montanari Essay II, ?? 11-12. 3. Samuel Huntington,The Clash of Civilizationsand the Remakingof the WorldOrder (London:Simon & Schuster,1977), 184. 4. Sigmund Freud,Das Unbehagenin der Kulturin Studienausgabe,vol. IX (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1974). 5. See also chapter2 of my Historyand Illusionin Politics (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2001). 6. See also my History and Illusion in Politics (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 2001), 1-13 and 69-73. 7. I'm particularlyinterestedin four theorists as representativesof classical liberalism: Wilhelm von Humboldt(especially his Ideen zu einem versuch, die Grenzendes Staates zu bestimmen[Stuttgart: Reclam, 1967]), BenjaminConstant(De la libertechez les moderes, ed. M. Gauchet [Paris:Hachette, 1980]), Alexis de Tocqueville(L'ancien rdgimeet la revolution ed. [Paris:Gallimard1967]), andJ. S. Mill ('On Liberty',in 'OnLiberty'andOtherWritings, S. Collini [Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 1989]). 8. See below, footnote 16. 9. Cambridge,MA: Harvard UniversityPress, 1971. 10. See, for instance,Alan Badiou,Saint Paul: Lafondationde l'universalisme(Paris:PUF, 1997), esp. chapter VII. This element becomes even more prominent in the work of the Paulus [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, (GiinterBornkamm, 1969], 24) Marcion,about 'Ultrapauliner' whom the best work is still Adolf von Harnack,Marcion:Das EvangeliumvomfremdenGott (Leipzig, 1924, reprintedDarmstadt1985). 11. See Theoryof Justice, ? 40, for the first of these and Theoryof Justice, p. 31 n. 16 and throughoutfor the second.



12. See Isaiah Berlin, FourEssays on Liberty(Oxford). 13. To be sure,one mustperhapsdistinguishmerelyapparent consensus,pseudo-consensus, from real voluntaryagreement,but this is a minorcorrectionthatchanges nothing in the basic of structure the argument. 14. See also my Public Goods, Private Goods (Princeton,NJ: PrincetonUniversityPress, 2001), 96-104. 15. It was a commonlyheld objectionto Kantin the late eighteenthcenturythathis criticism of traditional theology was substantivelyradicalin name only. The whole contentof traditional theology could be reintroducedsimply by renamingit 'Postulatesof Pure PracticalReason'. This was not exactly fair because not all of traditional theology would surviveKant'sattack.A later version of basically the same line of thought occurs in Stirner'scriticism of Feuerbach Reclam, 1967]). Feuerbach,Stirnerclaims, (Stirner,Der Einzige undsein Eigentum[Stuttgart: doesn't, as he pretends, radically detheologise religion, he simply uses the words 'human of essence' in place of the word 'God'. The structure Feuerbach'stheoryand the contentof the moral obligations it imposes on individuals, though, remain the same as that of traditional theology. 16. John Dewey, The Questfor Certaintyin John Dewey: TheLater Works1925-1953, ed. John Boydston (SouthernIllinois Press, 1988), vol. 4; similarthoughtsin TheodorAdornoand Die Max Horkheimer, Dialektikder Aufklarung(Frankfurt: Fischer,1969). 17. In a complex industrialisedworld, there is a furtherreason for adherenceto fixed and See rigidgeneralprinciples:efficiency andsimplicityof administration. my Historyand Illusion in Politics (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 2001), 150-52. 18. For Kant as 'gallows-philosopher',see JacquesLacan, Seminaire VII:L'ethiquede la DialektikderAufklarung. psychanalyse(Paris:Seuil, 1986), andalso AdornoandHorkheimer, 19. Of course it is not at all difficult to see how Americansmight find it plausible that any rational agents discussing politics under favourable conditions would agree on these arrangements. 20. See Theodor Adorno, Der Positivismusstreitin der deutschen Soziologie (Berlin: CamLuchterhand, 1972) 'Einleitung';see also my Morality,Culture,and History(Cambridge: bridge UniversityPress, 1999), 69-76. 21. This is not a logical point. 22. See Noam Chomsky,Rogue States (London:Pluto Press, 2000). 23. Sometimes, of course, politicians have the reverse interest, one in presenting their programmesas being as like as possible those of some favouredmodel. 24. Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra. 25. Joseph de Maistre, Les Soirees de Petersbourg (Paris: Edition du vieux colombier, 1960), 40. 26. RichardRorty,Contingency,Irony,and Solidarity(Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press 1989), 78. 27. Ibid., 73. 28. Hegel did change his mind on a numberof things duringhis philosophicallyactive life, but the one thing he never gave up was the commitment to a form of absolute knowledge (couched in a final vocabulary)and also a rejectionof what he called 'irony'(which he saw as instantiatedin the work of FriedrichSchlegel). 29. It is, of course,also the case thatHeideggeris not a liberal,andis a paradigm those attiof tudes of willful obscurantism,authoritarianism, sanctimoniousnessthat liberalismshould and terminate. 30. Rorty,Contingency,Irony,and Solidarity,65.



31. 'Le liberalisme n'est evidemment pas une ideologie ni un iddal. C'est une forme de gouvernementet de "rationalite"gouverementale fort complexe.'Michel Foucault,Dits et ecrits, vol. IV (Paris:Gallimard,1994), 36.

RaymondGeuss is a Reader in Philosophy at the Universityof Cambridge;his most recent books are History and Illusion in Politics (CambridgeUniversityPress, 2001); PublicGoods,PrivateGoods (PrincetonUniversityPress, 2001); and At CrossPurposes (London:Hearing Eye, 2001).