The Rawlsian Revolt: A Review of 'Free and Equal'

Summer 2023 #42
written by
Maxwell Jeffery
illustration by
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What does the phrase 'liberal democracy' conjure up for you? For many on the modern Right it is enough to provoke indignation. ‘Liberals’ under this designation are doctrinaire adherents to a set of beliefs that only concern people living in the bubble of affluent urban centres. For critics on the Left, ‘Western-style liberal democracy’ can serve as a byword for the stagnant system of representative democracy encapsulated by the unofficial 2020 election slogan ‘Settle for Biden’; a desultory politics that treats free market principles as sacrosanct while offering little else to advance social, environmental, or economic justice. In this context, attempts at reform are often met with cynicism or timidity, diminishing the ambition of proposals for change or preventing them from getting off the ground entirely.

Against this backdrop it can seem rather pedantic to restate the principles of Liberalism as a formal school of thought. In Free and Equal, however, Daniel Chandler contends that the root cause of withering faith in liberal democracy is the absence of a compelling vision for society towards which the population at large can orient itself. Opposing sides in political debates are drawn towards extremes because we lack a “principled way of striking a balance” between competing interests. To renew a vision of a “realistic utopia” and to provide a “coherent framework for balancing our basic freedoms”, Chandler turns to the work of political philosopher John Rawls.

First published in 1971, Rawls’ benchmark work A Theory of Justice played a major role in reviving the field of political philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition. According to the argument laid out in the book, a just society is one in which equality is maximised to the greatest extent possible while preserving fundamental individual liberties. As an analytical philosopher, Rawls provided a concise set of criteria by which to reason through the options for achieving such a society.

The Original Position

In order to develop a genuinely impartial set of principles for a just society, Rawls made use of a thought experiment he termed the original position. In this scenario, a group of individuals come together to decide the governing principles of society while operating behind a veil of ignorance. This veil makes each individual unaware of their social status or personal attributes, thus preventing them from pursuing principles which would unfairly advantage them. Assuming the group to be rational and self interested, Rawls argued that they would select principles that promote fairness, equality, and basic liberties.

Basic Liberties

Rawls recognised that people will hold differing ideas of what makes life worthwhile. As such, a just society is taken to be one in which individuals are guaranteed the autonomy to pursue their own conception of the good life. This is achieved through granting basic liberties including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to participate in the political process. These liberties are to be made universally available, and safeguarded up until the point that they may infringe upon another person’s ability to exercise their basic liberties, or pose a threat to important societal interests.

The Difference Principle

To address the issue of social and economic inequalities in a fair society, Rawls provided the difference principle. It states that it is fair for people to be unequally rewarded if, and only if, that inequality benefits everyone, including the least advantaged. An organising system for society that upholds the difference principle would be one in which the living conditions of the least well off are higher than they would be under any alternative system. The accrued benefits of prosperity under such a system would therefore have to be widely shared. According to Rawls, with the veil of ignorance in place it would be most rational for the individuals in the original position to arrive at the difference principle as a way of achieving overall fairness.

Taking these principles in hand, Chandler asks what their implications would be for reorganising modern society. This is of course no small task, and it is remarkable how lucidly he manages to articulate his account in less than 300 pages. Undoubtedly there will be points in the argument to which readers will take exception, but the presentation of the book is such that it would be easy to supplant problem passages while retaining the overall logical structure.

Shared Prosperity

By way of example, Chandler follows Rawls in arguing that the difference principle lends strong justification for a market-based economy. Planned economies are dismissed because market-based economies are seen to be more conducive to individual freedom, which in turn encourages economic activity that improves the wellbeing of all citizens. The inherent inequalities that emerge under such an economy can be fair because they offer incentives to encourage “innovation or economic growth”.

Treating innovation or economic growth as outcomes to aim for is perhaps insufficient if we’re seeking to lay out a clear foundation for a truly just society. In economies like the UK – often misguidedly referred to as ‘post-industrial’ – innovation can be a rather nebulous term. It has a tendency to lead to the cul-de-sac of ‘digital innovation’ where overhauling software becomes an end in itself. This is aptly demonstrated by the bloated Web 3.0 ecosystem, where projects proliferate under some vague promise of innovation while in practice achieving little besides creating new demands on energy supplies.*

In turn, ‘economic growth’ gives too much room to the sort of self-congratulatory greenwashing epitomised by the ESG investment strategies beloved by global consulting firms. As recent trends have shown, interest from investors in ‘ethical’ considerations drops off in line with economic downturn. We must define clearly what sort of economic growth we need, reflective of the existential threats facing the living world. In a situation where some economic growth hinges upon the irreversible destruction of ecosystems, surely we need to talk seriously about the elimination of some areas of economic activity, rather than just refining the terms of engagement.

Chandler treats the issue of climate catastrophe as resolvable through legal measures and targeted taxation, with government intervention stepping in to pick up the slack where market forces prove inadequate. In the short term, however, this leaves too much room for those real enemies that would favour financial gain over a viable future. Unless they are tackled head-on in the here and now there will be no long term in which to build an alternative status quo. As such, Free and Equal acknowledges the imperilled position contemporary society is in, while eliding the more aggressive responses advocated by some environmentalists.

Workplace Democracy

According to Rawls, welfare state capitalism is insufficient to really act upon the implications of the difference principle. Through this lens, Chandler claims that when properly considered the difference principle “justifies a fundamental transformation of our economic institutions”. Redistribution of income should be replaced by predistribution, where the state acts to ensure “widespread ownership of production assets and human capital (that is, education and trained skills)”.

This sets the stage for the most compelling part of Chandler’s book, where he turns his attention to the world of work. It is crucial, he reminds us, not to follow in the tendency to treat inequality merely as a matter of income. Power differentials that limit the opportunities for ordinary people to operate with dignity and autonomy in their lives are equally essential to address. Given the portion of their lives that most people spend at work, no account of a just society in Rawlsian terms can be sufficient without tackling the structures that govern the workplace. Chandler quotes the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson in saying “the vast majority are subject to private, authoritarian government, not through their own choice, but through laws that have handed nearly all authority to their employers.” This means that “we must reinvent the internal structure of companies themselves, so that workers have the legal right to participate in decision-making on much more equal terms.”

Rawls himself did little to articulate what work in a just society would look like in practice, save for some brief mention of worker co-ops. To fill this conspicuous gap, Chandler dedicates the final chapter to an exploration of workplace democracy. He proceeds to consider various options – such as the co-management model established in Northern European and Nordic countries – and arrives at worker co-operatives as the preferred option for achieving justice in the workplace.

Chandler considers common objectives to co-ops: that they entail cumbersome decision making procedures, that they are risk-averse, that over time they may degenerate away from their co-operative principles. Each of these concerns is borne out to be unwarranted, however, by looking at the example set by real world co-operatives. Worker co-operatives then are the ideal model due their ability to provide meaningful work while retaining high productivity and financial success. The question is then posed – if co-operatives are so desirable, why aren’t there more of them?

Drawing upon the work of economist Gregory Dow, Chandler suggests that it is the difficulty faced by co-ops in raising initial investment or borrowing that limits their uptake. In response, the co-operative sector must be expanded principally through making it easier to raise external investment for new co-operatives. This is to be achieved through establishing co-operative investment banks and a range of co-operative federations providing services including legal support, human relations, and so on.

It’s notable that Chandler warns of the trappings of terms like capitalism or socialism. Proceeding from the broad implications of Rawls’ principles for a free and equal society, it is necessary to engage in a process of creative recombination taking elements drawn from across different systems. According to the argument laid out in the book, this approach leads towards the adoption of worker co-operatives as the ideal to aim for, separate from any pre-existing political allegiances. In this manner, those active within the new economy may find the organising principles of Rawls, as laid out by Chandler, to provide a cogent means of arguing the case for democratic business models occupying a more prominent place in the economy.

All this is notwithstanding the fact that Chandler does not proceed beyond worker co-ops to examine the wider field of community finance or other models of democratic business, such as community share offers or multi-stakeholder co-operatives. The opportunity is open, then, to build upon the case for workplace democracy laid out in Free and Equal by proving the potential for new economic solutions to reach towards the “compelling vision that can renew faith in liberal and democratic ideals and galvanise people to build a better society” which Chandler demands. ∞

Free and Equal: What Would a Fair Society Look Like? (2023) by Daniel Chandler is available now. Published by Allen Lane.

*Interested readers can refer back to STIR No18 for a critique of ‘the cult of innovation’.

Max is the art director of STIR Magazine, and elsewhere contributes to community-based and political projects in various capacities.

Summer 2023 #42
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