Charles Mills Thinks Liberalism Still Has a Chance

Probably no contemporary scholar has thought more deeply about how liberalism as a political tradition and philosophy was historically and structurally aligned with the socio-economic interests of whites than the political philosopher Charles W. Mills. In works like The race treaty and Black rights / white errorsHe has tried to reveal the reality of an ongoing system of white rule in which liberalism – both as a philosophy and as a system of government – is complicit. Mills traces the problem back to the origins of modern liberalism, when liberal thinkers such as Kant and Locke restricted the question of moral and political equality to whites while at the same time enslaved and oppressed the European powers non-white peoples.

Mills’ work aims to examine liberalism not just as a theory of equality or freedom, but as an actual practice, the history of which shows a “general pattern of unjust systemic white advantage”. In this sense, he argues, contemporary liberalism is itself committed to white supremacy, not as a racial ideology but as a longstanding political system of white racial rule.

To what extent are contemporary liberal philosophers still committed to what he calls the “race treaty”? Can liberalism break free from its long history of racial and economic inequality? And don’t the Liberals’ support for Black Lives Matter, their opposition to Donald Trump’s nativism, and their support for Joe Biden prove this? To answer these questions, I spoke to Mills about the Biden presidency, the enduring legacy of race contract theory, and the January 6th events in the U.S. Capitol.

– Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

D.aniel S.teinmetz-J.Enkins: What is the term “racial contract” and how does it relate specifically to your understanding of white supremacy?

C.Harles W. M.Diseases: The term “racial treaty” is an attempt to include race and white supremacy in discussions within mainstream political theory. Social contract theory (which goes back to Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and others) has been central to modern Western political thought. It is suggested that we think of social and political institutions as if they were contractually created by men of equal rights in a pre-sociopolitical stage (the “state of nature”). However, there are at least two problems. First of all, the “men” in the writings of the classical theorists are real maleand they appear to be quite white too. Second, while this metaphor could work for genuinely egalitarian societies like premodern hunter-gatherer societies, what about oppressive modern societies? Where in such an image is there a conceptual space for the representation of gender and racial rule in modern times?


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