Capitalism kills the soul

January 12, 2001

John Dunn analyses the funniest political philosopher in the world.

Some titles carry the author's voice. Not, I think, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence; History, Labour, and Freedom ; or Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality ; but surely If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich ? does. Jerry Cohen is much the funniest living Anglophone political philosopher of any note, as well as perhaps the cleverest. Many of his best comic effects depend on the tone of voice, and some are clearly intended simply for fun. But it is always dangerous to assume that the jokes do not carry a point.

It used to be true, not so very long ago, that you could be born a communist (or, for that matter, a Marxist) in the same sense that you can still be born a Catholic. Not, as Locke put it, that you actually had the exercise of either, but simply that you had full opportunity to come to understand the point of being one, and to learn how to be one, simply through the circumstances of your birth and upbringing. In that sense, Cohen was born a communist, and in due course came to be merely a Marxist, and then, as the decades went by, came to be merely a political philosopher of egalitarian convictions, teaching at a great and conspicuously privileged university in a country far from the lands of his own (or his parents') birth. If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? presents the Gifford lectures that he gave at the University of Edinburgh in 1996, a series with many exceedingly distinguished predecessors and a clear duty to address theological as well as ethical issues. Even without the musical interlude of one of his lectures, his course makes a strikingly personal address, fusing autobiography and the history of ideas with political philosophy, and ending not only with the weighty issue of how far personal attitudes must feature within the subject matter of justice itself, but with the more disconcerting question of how far the disciplines of living effectively under capitalism are bound to prove lethal for the soul. You could read that closing sentence as the belated adoption of a tone fitting for a Gifford lecturer; but (to me) it suggests more the continuing personal discomfort that his title carries for Cohen himself.

What his book conveys, in any case, is how loyal Cohen remains to the family from which he came, and the struggles and commitments of his parents' lives, despite the savage punishment inflicted by history on the political vehicles and projects in which they came to put their trust. Loyalty and gratitude to the milieu of one's birth are somewhat feudal virtues, and far from guaranteed to guide anyone's intelligence for the better. But in Cohen's case, by the end of the book, even those who have always felt more angrily and thought more contemptuously of the history of communism than Cohen does even now, would be hard put to fail to recognise how right he is to feel them.

What will be more contentious, and what certainly matters more to others, is how much purely intellectual benefit he has drawn from this formative experience. Can a warm and happy Canadian communist childhood conceivably be a potent comparative advantage in doing political philosophy today? At first sight, few contemporary political philosophers would be tempted to answer yes. But in this book, and perhaps for the first time, Cohen shows them to be wrong. If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? is very much an act of pietas (or, rather, its gender-neutral equivalent). But it is also a powerful assault on the ever more insistent assumption that social justice simply must be compatible with the fundamental character of a capitalist society. Since we really have no practically coherent conception of anything preferable to such a society, it might be just as well if this were true. But that, certainly, is no reason whatever for believing that it is true.

Under the aegis of John Rawls, the great majority of Anglophone political philosophers have come to be convinced, over the past quarter of a century, that what it is for a society to be just is the master question of political philosophy. The proportion of those convinced that the demands of social justice are fully compatible with the operating requirements of a capitalist economy is clearly smaller; but, at least in the United States itself, it remains extremely substantial. At one level, Cohen's book is largely an ingenious and agreeably frank casuistry of the ethics of professorial income management, but at another and more consequential level, it is a most imaginative deployment of personal ethical discomfort to pin down, and press home, a deep evasion at the centre of this majority vision of social justice under capitalism. Its source may be merely the externalisation of a private disquiet; but its force at the point of impact is as public as any philosopher could wish.

Where that vision falters decisively is in its sharp split between the external institutional structure of a society and the attitudes not merely contingently evinced by its denizens, but systematically elicited by its organisation, sanctioned in and by their very pervasiveness, and causally decisive for it to work as it does. A just society on the Rawlsian and post-Rawlsian account is a society just in its basic structure and, insofar as it is just in this respect, impervious in its justice to the ethical nescience and tawdriness that it licenses and foments in its human participants. This, of course, is not a neutral description of the terms of the theories in question; and Cohen never permits himself to write with this level of discourtesy or imprecision. But he shows (in my view) why this is what is crucially at issue. Neither Rawls nor Ronald Dworkin, of course, endorses anyone's personal ethical limitations. However, their theories, because these aim so steadily away from the ethical quality of anyone's life and towards the externally specifiable structures of a society, exclude that quality from serious assessment in the context of answering the question of what it is for a society to be just. In a just society, in their terms, the ethical quality of everyone's life is a matter for free choice by individuals within the external constraints imposed by that society.

Marxists, by contrast, as Cohen explains very well, while they naturally laid considerably less emphasis on individual discretion in the choice of life plans under capitalism, fully agreed with Rawls and Dworkin in seeing the external structure of a society as the crucial site for positive over negative commitment. Where they disagreed radically was in their judgement of whence that structure came, and how and why it could be expected to change. Consistently with their theories, neither Rawls nor Dworkin sees anything theoretically perturbing about rich egalitarians keeping their money firmly to themselves, even if each plainly recognises a political duty to seek to transform the external structure of their own societies through the exercise of state power, so that these clash less fundamentally with the requirements of justice. But no believer in the validity of Christianity (a theory of the ethical primacy of private life, if ever there was one) is likely to be surprised at the claim that the beliefs of wealthy egalitarians should be clearly discernible throughout how they choose to spend their incomes. In the course of its long history, there have been many Christian interpretations of the requirements for a society to be just; but the judgement that wealth and personal salvation are in drastic tension with one another has the highest authority, and reaches back to the religion's founding epoch.

The view that social justice is fully compatible with accepting market incentives operating from an interpersonally fair baseline is detached and sophisticated. It may also be politically realistic within the competitive dynamics of an operating capitalist democracy, in that all egalitarian denizens of such a society are apt to find themselves, sooner or later, having to choose between the ultimate authority of democracy and what even their own relatively acquiescent conception of justice requires. It may well be the most for which it is now reasonable to hope, as well as far more than it is now reasonable to expect. But, however detached and disabused we may choose to become, that view will still remain, as Cohen relentlessly demonstrates, in the most embarrassing and unprepossessing tension with the central implications of the moral tradition from which we have come. If we take that tradition seriously, even at this late and dispirited stage in the history of capitalism, we cannot coherently judge that a just society is one that tempers equality to the inequalities of power or the discrepancies in the opportunities for blackmail open to its members. If the worst-off suffer because the better-off can penalise them for asking for more, injustice in the existential choices of the more productive infects the external structures within which all must act. What a society is, is not merely a structure of external coercive sanctions and a system for coordinating production and exchange. It is also all the humans who exert, resist or comply with these sanctions, and do the producing, exchanging and consuming, and all the beliefs, judgements and sentiments that lead them to act as they do. At issue is the ancient imaginative struggle between idealism and materialism; and the dominant liberal (or social democrat) theories of justice of our epoch turn out to be, however idealist in their political tastes, damagingly materialist in their assumptions about what our societies are: where we stop and they start.

Cohen is less than persuasive on the costs of resisting market rationality, treating these principally as though they were mainly a matter of motivating managers, rather than one of motivating risk taking and innovation. He is altogether more compelling on why we should still think of what it is for a society to be just, not solely as an external coercive framework, which it would be rational for us all, prescinding from our individual historical privileges, to prefer to any alternative - but also as a shared way of life, sustained by attitudes through which we treat each other as creatures of equal value. This has never been an intuitively natural way to feel about one another, and much particular experience will always appear to tell emphatically against it. But it retains its power as a conception of how we should view one another; and it can be honoured, if anywhere, only in the living. Like Cohen, I do not see how it could ever be fully at home in a capitalist economy.

John Dunn is professor of political theory, University of Cambridge.

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