In an essay on the past and future of critical theory, Raymond Geuss offers an observation that has increasing resonance across all fields of inquiry, from politics and economics to philosophy and literature: Sometime around 1970 the basic 20th-century consensus that democracy and capitalism would provide an eternal increase in both justice and wealth began to unravel. Thomas Piketty makes a similar point in his book Capital in the 21st Century. It is increasingly likely that the post-World War II marriage of rising equality and rising incomes was a bubble of sorts. Whether one mourns the loss of a golden age or celebrates the liberation from childish illusions, the loss of the hopeful liberal idealism of the mid-20th century is a fact still to be reckoned with.We suffer today, in Geuss’s telling, from a poverty of ideas. Real poverty is a result of the weakness of contemporary thinking, our unwillingness to face reality, and our propensity to believe in hopeful fantasies. As he writes, the belief in the 20th-century consensus offered an illusion of hope that concealed a darker reality.
As far as what was ‘really’ happening is concerned, we can now see that the period of unprecedented economic growth and political and social progress which took place in the West after the end of World War II began to plateau in the 1970s when productivity began to stagnate. By the early 1970s, though, the assumption that economic growth would continue, levels of prosperity continue to rise, and the social and political structures continue to evolve in the direction of greater flexibility, realism and humanity had become very firmly entrenched in Western populations. The period during which anything like that assumption was at all reasonable was ending just as I was beginning work on my book, although I, of course, did not know that at the time, any more than anyone else did.
Geuss argues that the mainstream responses to the unraveling of the 20th century’s optimistic dream involved denial and debt. It also involved the academic embrace of John Rawls. Let’s unpack these in order. First denial:
It would have been political suicide for any major figure in the West to face up to this situation courageously and to try to make clear to the population that the possibilities of relatively easy real growth were exhausted, that the era of ever-increasing prosperity was gone for good; this would have raised intolerable questions about the very foundations of the existing socioeconomic and political order.
What followed from denial were debt and other devices that have allowed us to continue to live as if we could afford the McMansions, lifelong pensions, and universal health care that are in reality slipping from our reach. And this turn toward debt led to a return of large-scale inequality, enriching a few while impoverishing the many as well as the public sphere.
What the 1980s and 1990s had in store for us, then, was the successive implementation of a series of financial gimmicks which created financial bubbles and allowed the illusion of increasing growth for the majority of the population to be maintained for a while. This cycle was accompanied by a massive change in our culture and socioeconomic system which made possible and in fact actively encouraged individuals and institutions to incur increasingly significant amounts of debt. This, in turn, was attended by a massive shift in resources and economic power away from the majority of the population, a further concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few superlatively rich individuals and families, and a great increase in social inequality. Needless to say, the proliferation of debt ad libitum could not continue under existing conditions for long and the system began to collapse in 2007 and 2008.
We live in a moment now where the failure of the old model of a debt-fueled steadily expanding welfare state is increasingly clear (although it still remains political suicide to actually admit that we are collectively living well beyond our means). But the mainstream response to the failure of the liberal dream of social democracy—the Reagan and Thatcher model of simply cutting off the spigot of debt and subsidy—has failed too; the conservative counter-revolution has not worked, at least in part because doing so would cause unfathomable pain. Instead, the last 40 years have witnessed a parade of half-measures by which we have exacerbated poverty, homelessness, and inequality without actually altering our course.For Geuss, our economic and political malaise is connected with the failure of political thinking and specifically with the rise to prominence of the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls is famous for his Theory of Social Justice, an attempt to offer a non-utilitarian justification for inequality within a liberal capitalist system. Rawls formulates his project differently; he argues his is an attempt to develop a theory of the most just society. It just so happens that the most just society happens to look much like our own. Rawls’s theory of justice turns out to be a moral justification of a liberal welfare state, one that is increasingly less liberal and provides ever less welfare.
Rawls allows people who observe great inequality in their societies to continue to feel good about themselves, provided that they support some cosmetic forms of redistribution of the crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich and powerful. The apparent gap which many people think exists between the views of Rawls and, say, Ayn Rand is less important than the deep similarity in their basic views. A prison warden may put on a benevolent smile (Rawls) or a grim scowl (Ayn Rand), but that is a mere result of temperament, mood, calculation and the demands of the immediate situation: the fact remains that he is the warden of the prison, and, more importantly, that the prison is a prison. To shift attention from the reality of the prison to the morality, the ideals and the beliefs of the warden is an archetypical instance of an ideological effect. The same holds not just for wardens, but for bankers, politicians, voters, investors, bureaucrats, factory workers, consumers, advisers, social workers, even the unemployed—and, of course, for academics.
The great fault in Rawls’s thinking and in much of the political theory of the day, Geuss writes, is that it is concerned with the morality of the system and the political, economic, and social leaders rather than with the oppressive nature of the world itself. Critical theory, as Geuss understands it, is a relentless uncovering of the oppression. Thinking is not to be mobilized in the name of justice but in the pursuit of uncovering what is, what Heraclitus called the need to “say what is.”Over and over today pundits and philosophers seek to offer justifications. They justify the death penalty or argue against it; they justify strong police action, or argue against it; they justify war or drone attacks, or argue against it. In the spirit of Rawls, we are obsessed with justification.But justification is not justice. Israel can certainly justify its war against Gaza, just as the United States justified its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. In justifying a war, however, we divert attention away from the reality of war; we focus on whether it has met certain criteria of proportionality; we ask if it is fought in offense or defense; and we demand it follow settled rules. In doing so, however, we can ignore the basic reality of the killing and the tragedy that war is.Geuss ends his essay with the hope that as the failure of the liberal democratic project becomes visible the time might arise for a critical thinking that eschews justification and insists instead on the relentless engagement with reality and the effort to say what is. Such thinking must be radically independent; it must avoid the pitfall of partisanship and must be beholden to no clique or movement. It is just such a fearless confrontation with reality, whatever it may be, that is at the very core of what Hannah Arendt called thinking. Geuss’s paean to the possibility of a new age of thinking is a hopeful note in a dark time. On this hot August weekend, it is worth your time.