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
1988 the book by Carole Pateman The sexual contract Both problems have been addressed by suggesting that the social contract be reread as it contains an exclusive “sexual contract” between white men. This immediately gives us a far more realistic iconography for understanding the societies of Western modernity. They are not consensual democracies, but patriarchal societies structured by a discriminatory agreement between white men within the group. Inspired by Pateman, I wrote The race treaty 1997, to similarly argue that the modern world, insofar as it is shaped by European expansionism (colonialism, imperialism, white settler states, racial slavery), could also be seen as based on an exclusive intra-white “racial contract” that shares the same morals denies legal and political position towards colored people.
The concept of “white supremacy” has long been used by critical racial theorists in law and elsewhere as a term for structural white domination. (This is not “white supremacy” as an ideology, but as a certain type of social system.) So I borrowed this literature too. Just as the revisionist idea of a sexual contract illuminates patriarchy, so the revisionist idea of a racial contract illuminates white supremacy. We now have a powerful theoretical tool to bring radical feminist and anti-racist political theory into a critical confrontation with liberalism and to gloss over the realities of gender and racial exclusion in “liberal” politics. (Pateman and I would later attempt to address the “intersectional” challenge of uniting the two contracts in our 2007 book together. Contract and rule.)
DSJ: In terms of white supremacy, I was impressed with how bold the first movement was The race treaty is: “White supremacy is the unnamed political system that made the modern world what it is today.” You wrote these words at the height of the liberal international order in the 1990s. How provocative a thesis was your claim to white supremacy at the time, especially within philosophy?
CM: I would say it was so provocative, so different from conventional mainstream philosophical wisdom, that even now, nearly a quarter of a century later, it is still beyond acceptance. It is imperative to appreciate the deep influence of race in modernity not only on everyday knowledge, but also on the supposedly rigorous theorization in the academy. Race shapes the development of modern academic disciplines such as sociology, political science, anthropology, criminology, theory of international relations and many other and older disciplines from the premodern era such as philosophy and history. The casual and almost ubiquitous assumption of biological and / or cultural superiority for the white race skews them all.
Therefore, in the nominally post-colonial postwar period, when such things are no longer political in public (all those newly empowered black and brown citizens and newly independent black and brown nations who may be offended), a massive retrospective cleanup needs to be carried out. An academy that was a white supremacist not only in its demographics but also in its content needs to reinvent itself. “Race”, if recognized at all, is viewed as a personal prejudice separate from the social structure, political dominance and methodological framework of official academic research.
Despite the (one might think) obvious and indisputable history of the dominance of whites over blacks and Indians, or the global hegemony of Europeans until World War II in the USA, “white supremacy” becomes a taboo. It denotes a reality that can no longer be allowed. Fortunately, revisionist work is now being done on all of these issues to uncover this historical cover-up and lay the foundation for its systematic rethinking (although philosophy is the laggard, perhaps because it is conceptually the most challenged).
DSJ: The success of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly since the murder of George Floyd, shows that charges of white supremacy are increasingly accepted by many mainstream white liberals. What do you think of this development, especially since it would be easy for some to see it only as a reaction to Trump’s rise? Your work has long linked it to a failure of liberalism itself.
CM: I think, as I said earlier, that there is one crucial ambiguity in understanding the term: white supremacy as a racist ideology that supports white racial rule, and white supremacy as a system of white racial domination. It is easy for mainstream liberals to condemn the former and criticize President Trump for not clearly doing so. But the sense of the term that I have focused on in my work is really the latter. And that’s far more controversial because my reasoning is in The race treaty and throughout my work it is that you can have an ongoing system of white rule when there is no open white supremacist ideology and open rules of de jure subordination.
The key indicator, the key metric, is not what flag (actual or symbolic) is flying over society or what percentage of whites hold racist views, but whether or not one can demonstrate a general pattern of unjust systemic white advantage. historically and / or currently associated with racist structures and institutions sustained by white actions and inactivity. That’s the actual problem.
Trump was an easy target for liberals as he represents a throwback to the era of the megaphone rather than the dog whistle. But these structures will not go away even under the von Biden presidency. As the demonstrations last summer and the countless press reports about the race they initiated should have made clear, the problem is systemic. And mainstream liberalism was far less willing to admit, let alone denounce, white supremacy in this global structural sense. The concept is completely absent from current “white” political philosophy, even that of left-wing liberals like John Rawls and his students. In this respect it was a literature on apologia and obfuscation.
DSJ: The liberal philosopher you are most critical of is Rawls: you say that if you put all the sentences about race or racism in Rawls’ major works together, “you could get half a dozen pages if that much.” They root this in Rawls’ “ideal theory” approach to justice. What do you think makes Rawls’ ideal theory blind to questions of racial injustice and exclusion? And in the face of this blindness, is there any sense in which Rawls himself tacitly promoted white supremacy?
CM: I’ve looked at Rawls most systematically for a number of reasons. He is certainly the most respected political philosopher in the academy. He’s a left liberal and you have higher moral expectations of the left. His concepts of the “basic structure” of society and the “original position” as a tool for selecting principles of justice are both very useful innovations in this area. Finally, of course, it is a natural target as I am trying to work within a modified social contract model in the sense that I have to explain why my approach is preferable to his.
I would not say that Rawls promoted white supremacy, but that his dullness (no doubt a function of his socialization) effectively gave his circumvention the go-ahead in the voluminous literature that would make his work both sympathetic and critical. So what you get is the actual “Jim Crow Theory of Social Justice” in which issues of race are separate and unequal. However, as background factors one should not ignore the broader structural prejudices rooted in the predominantly white demographics of professional philosophy – only 1 percent of US philosophers are black – and its long history of moral complicity, dating back to ancient Greece. with oppression and social hierarchy.
Whatever his claims to the achievement of the Western philosophy of “truth” and “justice”, it was really a classic discourse by and for the socially privileged that provided rationalizations for injustice. My former colleague Samuel Fleischacker, for example, pointed this out in his invaluable year 2005 A brief history of distributive justice It was only with Gracchus Babeuf in the 1790s, in the French Revolution, that a concept of social justice began to be developed that was decoupled from social status and generally related to humanity. In other words, it takes well over 2,000 years for our modern integrative concept (also nominally inclusive) to evolve from its ancient Greek origins. And yet we are probably the point of contact for the theorizing of justice! In the context of this story, Rawls isn’t really that anomalous.
Rawls’ “ideal theory” actually has two aspects, although I have only recently begun to fully appreciate the second. The first, the most obvious normative aspect, is its focus on distributive justice for a perfectly just society. He would never move on to corrective justice for the rest of his life. But there is also a second aspect, the descriptive one, which goes back to the original version of the treaty from 1650 to 1800. Social contract theory is sometimes read as if it doesn’t just provide a useful metaphor for what the sociopolitical ideal is like should be created, but as it actually is is created. The contract as a metaphor presupposes consent and egalitarian inclusion, and this framework is preserved in Rawls’ proposal to view society as a “cooperative enterprise for mutual benefit” whose rules are “intended to promote the well-being of the participants”. But, as I have pointed out, societies structured by racial rule obviously cannot be accounted for by such an image.
The revelation I had two years ago is that Rawls isn’t define Society in such a bizarre way but informs us of the restricted scope his theory of justice. It does not apply, as he explains later in Justice as fairness (2001) to Racist Societies. So this is the second, far less noticed aspect of his idealizations. In fact, he believed that the United States and other liberal Western nations were close enough to the descriptive ideal of “cooperation for mutual benefit” that his theory would apply to them. Like most of his contemporaries, he profoundly denied their historically white-supremacist character. And the shocking implication, if you reject this ridiculous assumption, is that Rawls’ theory of justice, at least unchanged, does not apply to his own country! The socio-economic structure, the prevailing norms, the national moral psychology – they all get it wrong. So half a century of American Rawlsianism is basically wrong. Instead, as I have suggested in my own work, in order to develop appropriate principles of corrective racial justice, we must work with the superior metaphor of a non-consensual “contract of domination” – here the race contract – and the concept of a systemic basic racial structure.
DSJ: While your work is tied to the failure of liberal philosophers to address racial issues, it contains a wealth of resources for understanding contemporary right-wing populism. You have been particularly interested in the idea of the “Herrenvolk societies” for years. What are they and how could they explain the pull of Trumpism, especially given what we saw with the mob at the Capitol on Jan 6, and fear that such actions will repeat themselves across the country?
CM: I got the term from the late sociologist Pierre van den Berghe, who characterized countries like Jim Crow USA and apartheid in South Africa as “master people democracies”, democratic for the ruling race, the white masters, but not for the subordinate races. The value of the concept is that it makes it clear that race and racism are part of the nation’s constitution, symbiotically integrated into its norms and values and legal system, not anomalies. The portrayal of racism as an “anomaly” has historically been one of the key mystifications of mainstream white liberal studies of American political culture, hampering any attempt to develop an objective understanding of the real dynamics in political science or political philosophy. Rawls is fully in that tradition, while my concept of the Racial Treaty calls it into question.
And the implication is that the psyche of white citizens is fundamentally shaped not only by rational expectations of different social and material advantages, but also by their status positioning over blacks. For a significant percentage of white Trump supporters (I don’t want to say everything) the hope in my opinion has been that Trumpism – which takes advantage of their “white racist resentments” – will address and eliminate these two dangers, the end of different whites would be material advantage and also the threat of equalization of racial status.
Much of what we saw on January 6th was acting out of anger at that prospect. It has enforced recognition of the enduring, but unrecognized (especially in the years of Obama’s “post-racial society”) enduring normative and material power of white supremacy in the United States. Even mainstream white commentators have been embarrassedly forced to belatedly admit this reality.
While the attack was a moral and political catastrophe for the country, it grimly had a positive epistemological aspect: To the extent that liberal democracies are allegedly committed to “transparency” as the central political norm, the uprising had the virtue of excluding white politics To reveal power under the liberal facade. Black Americans in particular, of course, have always been exposed to this policy, which is why historically they have been the most consistent when it comes to condemning them and raising the alarm. But it is the anti-racial injustice protesters who face riot police and tear gas while the people taking America back receive the welcome mat, which further underscores the point.
DSJ: Trump’s presidency and a global right-wing populist movement signal for many the decline of liberalism and the decline of the liberal international order. There is also a growing socialist movement in this country that for its own reasons is equally critical of the failure of liberalism – growing economic inequality, widespread racism, environmental degradation. And yet, despite all your criticism of liberalism and white supremacy, you describe yourself in your latest book: Black rights / white errors (2017) as a “black radical liberal” who believes that liberalism can be freed from its white flaws. Why do you want to save liberalism?
CM: Liberalism is attractive for both principled and strategic reasons. You are, of course, absolutely right about the errors of actual historical liberalism that are manifesting, ubiquitous, all around us. But where do these errors come from? If liberalism has never lived up to its supposed principles and values, it by no means proves that the principles and values themselves are unattractive. The revealing way to understand these violations of (ideal) liberal norms, as I suggest in the book, is not the result of an inherently undermining “illiberalizing” dynamic within liberalism, but rather a manifestation of the corrupting results of group power. whether of the privileged classes, men or the dominant race, for liberal theory and practice. Hence the creation of a bourgeois, patriarchal or racist liberalism (usually all three together, of course).
But we can invoke the idealized, non-group versions of liberal principles and values to criticize the exclusive versions – which is exactly what most progressive social movements in America have historically done. Especially in the present time of the attack of authoritarian ethnonationalism on liberal norms, this is all the more reason to affirm them. Furthermore, liberalism, as I understand it, is certainly not bound to opposition to socialism in the social-democratic sense – that is probably just left-wing liberalism. And any other kind of hypothetical socialism – market socialism, workers’ democracy – would presumably seek to sell itself by promising a deeper and broader realization of liberal values, not their job. So I would argue that the socialist case can actually be done in a liberal framework. It is noteworthy that Rawls – certainly a respectable liberal! – expressly says A theory of justice that his theory “does not include a natural right to private property in the means of production”.
As for strategic reasons, liberalism (broadly including right-wing “classic” liberals) has been the undisputed dominant political ideology in US history, albeit in the restrictive incarnations just described. So if you try to get a broad political audience instead of preaching to the choir, as the progressives presumably want to do, you immediately have the immense advantage of invoking the political ideology nominally advocated by the majority. They don’t need to ask that they convert to Marxism or Foucauldianism or whatever first. You can simply say, “If you are a good liberal then this should be supported.” Of course, this does not mean that you cannot obtain valuable insights from Marx or Foucault, but ultimately they have to be “translated” into a liberal framework.
And if changes in the law are of crucial importance – necessary if not sufficient – for ongoing structural reform, do I need to make it clear that the American and broader Western legal systems are based on liberal principles and assumptions? The “black radical liberalism” that I advocate will therefore be able to interact directly with its conservative legal opponents in a way that non-liberal political ideologies cannot. Republicans in general, and Federal Society in particular, are undoubtedly certain of the importance of fighting for certain interpretations of the Constitution and the law, and that is precisely why they set out to gain control of the courts years ago. Black rights and non-white rights in general need to be promoted by liberal arguments and liberal jurisprudence in this liberal (broader sense) area.
DSJ: Dedicated in a retrospective forum in 2015 The race treaty in the magazine Politics, Groups and IdentitiesYou have given your critics an answer entitled “The race treaty revised: still unbroken after all these years. “What do you see as fundamentally unbroken and what has changed, if at all, in view of your commitment to liberalism? What gives you hope
CM: What I saw as unbroken at the time was the ongoing reality of unjust structural white rule and unjust structural white advantage, even in the last few years of the Obama presidency. The race treaty can survive such personnel changes in government circles; As I have emphasized throughout, what counts are the structures and institutions. And I should stress that liberalism, as I read it, is not indebted to the optimistic Whig progressivism traditionally attributed to it, especially when historically we have to view it as predominantly racialized liberalism.
In my 2015 answer I quoted a statistic from New York Times Columnist Charles Blow said a 2011 poll found that the majority of white Americans saw themselves as the main victims of racial discrimination. Not an encouraging figure! But even before Floyd’s murder and the major multicultural demonstrations last summer, such white racial attitudes had changed. So this is the kind of development that gives me hope, along with the possibility that the enormous wealth disparities of the New Gilded Age will create the objective basis for a transracial class alliance of the socially disadvantaged. But a chance for positive non-zero racial change, however small, is obviously further diminished if one embraces a political silence based on anticipating its hopelessness.
DSJ: After great concern, Biden defeated Trump in an election that was much closer than expected. Biden aims to unite the country by overcoming the divisions Trump has sown – most obviously racist divisions. What do you think is the path for theorists as theorists of political liberalism and race to achieve this goal when a country is as bitterly divided as we are? How can liberalism, as you say, “live up to its supposed principles and values”?
CM: For now, let me just underline the obvious immediate conclusion, by-election and (somewhat more ambiguous) concession after Trump’s “non-concession”. If someone on the left – this goes back to your earlier question – was reasonably afraid a few weeks ago that we might actually witness a slow-motion coup (even before the events of January 6th), I hope they are now a much deeper one appreciates the importance of defending liberalism like never before! Instead of taking the historical achievements of liberal democracy for granted or even rejecting them, we must protect them from being undermined by political law, even if we (of course) try to develop them further. Who would have thought that in 2021 – in the nation that considers itself the preeminent democracy on the planet – there would be a need to condemn voter suppression? Given the history of the actual norm of aristocratic democracy, such actual or attempted oppression is not really surprising, but continues with a past conveniently erased.
The way in which the future Biden government can act against racial inequality within a liberal framework is first of all to explicitly reject the catastrophic conceptual shift from “racial justice” to “diversity” in the national moral and legal discourse on race. The 1978 Supreme Court University of California regents versus Bakke The decision was a key decision in the process and also served to cement the false concept of “reverse discrimination”. (For a detailed forensic indictment, see Ellen Messer-Davidow’s Impressive Upcoming The Making of Reverse Discrimination: How DeFunis and Bakke Bleached racism with equal protection.) It is not that diversity is not important, but that – apart from the fact that it is indefinite and indefinite – it is far outdated in the hierarchy of values by the imperative of correcting injustices.
As already mentioned, the idea of structural racial injustice as a national problem had already become plausible to a far wider white-liberal audience in several areas before the Black Lives Matter demonstrations last summer than in the “post-racial” Obama years. So you’re building on that recognition and learning from the mistakes of the unsuccessful President’s racial initiative that Bill Clinton attempted in his second term. They work with grassroots social justice activist groups as well as official bodies. There is now a vast body of social science literature on the mechanisms by which unfair white racial advantages are created and reproduced (wealth gap, segregation of housing and education, different white prison populations, discrimination based on employment and mortgage, oppression of voters, race), gerrymandering, and so on ). The main aim will be to make the essential findings of this literature easily accessible and accessible to the non-academic population at large.
Sie appellieren also an das Fairnessgefühl der Amerikaner und versuchen, sie dazu zu bringen, zu erkennen, dass solche Ergebnisse nicht auf schlechte persönliche Entscheidungen und Verantwortungslosigkeit zurückzuführen sind, sondern auf historische und anhaltende Verstöße gegen den gleichen Schutz, der angeblich durch die Verfassung garantiert wird. Hier kann Rawls ‘Konzept der Grundstruktur (entsprechend modifiziert) besonders nützlich sein: Amerikaner an Gymnasien und Universitäten im ganzen Land über die Funktionsweise einer rassisierten Grundstruktur aufzuklären. Nur im Rahmen einer solchen rassistisch-staatsbürgerlichen Bildung kann der Neustart eines landesweiten Programms für positive Maßnahmen beispielsweise ein tragfähiges politisches Projekt sein, geschweige denn radikalere Maßnahmen wie Wiedergutmachungen. “Moderation”, wie sie derzeit von demokratischen Zentristen empfohlen wird, kann strukturelle Probleme nicht lösen.
Gleichzeitig gibt es keinen Prozentsatz daran, naiv zu sein. Bidens Wunsch, das Land zu vereinen, ist natürlich lobenswert. Leider ist es zumindest kurzfristig eindeutig nicht realisierbar. Obamas Täuschung von 2008, dass es keine roten oder blauen Staaten gab, wurde durch den republikanischen Obstruktionismus erschüttert, und diesmal ist es wahrscheinlich schlimmer. Obwohl ihr Gegner kein schwarzer Präsident mehr ist und eine unamerikanische Ungerechtigkeit sichtbar verkörpert, haben sich die Republikaner jetzt noch deutlicher als politisches Mittel des widerstandsfähigen weißen Nationalismus herausgestellt. Für zig Millionen von Trumps weißer Kernbasis – ich sage auch hier nicht, dass dies für alle seine Anhänger gilt oder die Stimmen, die er von einigen farbigen Menschen erhalten hat, zu leugnen – sind die Demokraten nicht nur die Partei des drohenden Nicht-Weißen Zukunft aber die Leute, die die Wahl gestohlen haben. Daher sind sie doppelt unehelich. Das ist keine Grundlage, um wirklich über den Gang zu arbeiten. Dies ist die Grundlage, um Ihre Zeit abzuwarten und auf die nächste politische Gelegenheit zu warten. Trumpismus ohne Trump könnte triumphierend wieder auferstehen.
Die demokratische Strategie besteht daher darin, Rassengerechtigkeit mit „Klassengerechtigkeit“ zusammenzubringen, da eine Wirtschaft umstrukturiert werden muss, die die Reichen so offensichtlich begünstigt. Sie versuchen, moralische Überredung und Gruppeninteresse miteinander zu verbinden, insbesondere für die weißen Armen, Arbeitslosen und ansonsten Benachteiligten. Der harte Kern von Trumps weißer Basis ist weder durch moralische noch durch aufsichtsrechtliche Anziehungskraft erreichbar, wenn man bedenkt, dass sie einen gerechten weißen Anspruch haben und ihre Gruppeninteressen rassistisch identisch definieren. Aber weiße Arbeiter, die vor Trump für Obama gestimmt haben, könnten von einer Demokratischen Partei zurückgewonnen werden, die ein echtes populistisches Engagement für diejenigen deutlich macht, die in der neuen plutokratischen Ordnung verloren haben. Wir müssen hoffen, dass ihre Zahlen ausreichen, um das Gleichgewicht zu halten.