Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

RAWLS ON RECIPROCITY (notes - work in progress


“I watch how the moon sits in the sky on a dark night, shining with the light from the sun
The sun doesn’t give light to the moon assuming that the moon’s gonna owe it one” - Linkin Park, “A Place for my Head”

“We want to stop those who don’t play by the rules from playing the system” - Tony Blair (**** inaccurate quote; see Militarist Discourse paper)

“If community is a positive norm, that is, if existing together with others in relations of mutual understanding and reciprocity is the goal, then it is understandable that we exclude and avoid those with whom we do not or cannot identify” (Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, p. 235)

Rawls’s concept of reciprocity is closely related to his concept of rationality. It is part of his core conception of the person, but indirectly, via the idea of society as a ‘system of cooperation’. His principles of moral psychology are, he admits, ‘reciprocity principles’ (TJ 397). Moral theory assumes people to be concerned about themselves - i.e. to be rational, in Rawls’s special sense - but it also assumes that others have claims on the self. Rawls’s theory ‘is founded on the notion of reciprocity which reconciles the points of view of the self and of others as equal moral persons’ (TJ 424) and is supposed to lead to an ‘appreciation of what [others] do as an element in our own good’ (TJ 438). Furthermore, it allows people to benefit from possibilities of collective social activity, such as the benefits of a division of labour (PL 320-1). In other words, it is the way someone who conforms to Rawls’s model of rational egoism can nevertheless cooperate with others. To a great extent, what Rawls means by ‘moral character’ is ‘reciprocity’ (see LN 25). A sense of justice depends (as well as on rationality and self-interest) on others ‘doing their part in social arrangements’ (TJ 436). (The mystifying terminology of ‘doing one’s part’ arises repeatedly in Rawls’s rhetoric. It seems to express a conception of duty as simultaneously minimalist, certain and total. NB how this phrase elides the agency involved in assigning ‘parts’: it is based on a metaphor of society as organism or functional machine, rather than as a system of relations).

Reciprocity is defined exclusively of altruism and benevolence, although clearly it implies some degree of these as a subtext: someone who is purely self-interested would not, by Rawls’s own admission, be interested in justice. Therefore, one might suggest that the idea of reciprocity is an overcoding device: it represents (limited) benevolence as if it were a form of self-interest, and therefore maintains the plausibility of an implausible image of the egoist self. (cf. the way in which even the ‘duty’ of mutual aid is overcoded as a contractual obligation - TJ 99). A system based on ‘reciprocal advantage’ is supposed to be ‘realistic’, whereas one based on ‘benevolence’ is not. This is because of a supposed psychological law that people favour whatever aids their good (TJ 155). Rawls relies on reciprocity, not sympathy (TJ 438), and people in the original position are not assumed to be altruistic (CW 178). (This “law” is very contentious, depending, among other things, on accurate knowledge of what “aids one’s good”. The “realism” of Rawls’s conception also depends on a series of undeclared assumptions about the psychological effects of rules. The process of imposing rules and excluding free-riders is implicitly, and wrongly, assumed to be cost-free. A system which, for instance, demands “responsibility for ends” of people who cannot adopt this standpoint would be inherently “unrealistic” in crucial respects).

One could note that the other against which Rawls constructs his model, “altruism”, is not the only possible other. (One could also counterpose it to positive reciprocity on a model of prefiguration, to an inclusive economy of the gift, and/or to an egoism aware of its dependence on social context, of the kind constructed in The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself). The choice of this other is revealing, because Rawls can easily present it as unrealistic: he is, in effect, counterposing his own model of submission to an even more stringent regime of submission and self-sacrifice. For instance, he suggests that altruists would agree to classical utilitarianism in the original position (PL 164-5).

The idea of “cooperation” as conceived by Rawls is fundamentally reactive, consisting in the main of a petty-minded demand for submission by others to rules and other externalities which are conceived as beneficial. Society is supposed to be ‘for mutual benefit’ (PL 300) or ‘mutual advantage’ (CW 325). This idea of mutual advantage - not need - is the central theme in Rawls’s ethics. Here, Rawls gives an extended definition: ‘In justice as fairness, the members of society are conceived in the first instance as moral persons who can cooperate together for mutual advantage, and not simply as rational individuals who have aims and desires they seek to satisfy. The idea of cooperation has, as I have said, two elements: a notion of fair terms of cooperation which all participants may reasonably be expected to accept, and a notion of each participant’s rational advantage, or good [NB self-alterity: rational advantage, not desire, and what people “may reasonably be expected to accept”, not what they do accept]. When the notion of cooperation, which is distinct from the notion of socially coordinated activity for certain ends, is applied to the basic structure of society, it is natural to take the two moral powers as the essential features of human beings… Thus citizens in the well-ordered society of justice as fairness have both the capacity and the regulative desire to cooperate on fair terms with others for reciprocal advantage over a complete life’ (CW 385-6).

The idea of reciprocity is supposed to be central to all liberal conceptions, not just Rawls’s own (LN 7), and it is far more fundamental than the original position, as is shown by Rawls’s insistence that the former, but not the latter, is a necessary part of every reasonable set of liberal principles (PL li). ‘The main idea [of fairness] is that when a number of persons engage in a mutually advantageous cooperative venture according to rules, and thus restrict their liberty in ways necessary to yield advantages for all, those who have submitted to these restrictions have a right to a similar aquiescence on the part of those who have benefited from their submission. We are not to gain from the cooperative labors of others without doing our fair share’ (TJ 96). One has a right to expect acquiescence in the collective scheme, at least as long as it is as just as can be expected (TJ 301-2). In contrast, those who ‘do their part’ should ‘benefit’ accordingly (JAFAR 6). People are entitled to a share only because they ‘stand in… cooperative relations’ and have therefore helped to produce what is shared - there is therefore no such thing as a fair or unfair distribution as such (TJ 76-77). Entitlements can only occur as a result of an effort of will or an intentional act (JAFAR 75). Also, ‘all who cooperate must benefit, or share in common burdens’ (CW 316). Also, Rawls’s theory ‘rests on our disposition to respond in kind to what others do for (or to) us’ (JAFAR 127). The first imperative is a strange kind of slave morality: ‘the duty of fair play… requires one to abstain from an advantage which cannot be distributed fairly to those whose efforts have made it possible. That those who make the efforts and undergo the restrictions of their liberty should share in the benefits produced is the consequence of an assumption of an initial position of equality’. This even includes foregoing any good which cannot be distributed fairly (a position Rawls denies is rule-worship) (CW 128). Reciprocity means conditional rights, unconditional rightslessness and unconditionality of the system: ‘reciprocity is a relation between citizens expressed by principles of justice that regulate a social world in which all who are engaged in cooperation and do their part as the rules and procedures require are to benefit in an appropriate way as assessed by a suitable benchmark of comparison’ (JAFAR 49). Rawls is only interested in sharing ‘goods cooperatively produced’ amongst ‘those who produced them’, so that, for instance, the least-advantaged group cannot be defined outside the process of production (JAFAR 62-3). People are to benefit only if they ‘do their part as the rules and procedures require’ - although Rawls wrongly terms this ‘everyone’s efforts’ (PL 16). ‘We are not to gain from the cooperative efforts of others without doing our fair share’ (TJ 301). One might paraphrase these terms as a kind of Rawlsian first commandment: Thou shalt not free-ride. (On one occasion Rawls treats this imperative as intuitively obvious and in no need of explanation. See CW 122).

Rawls’s conception of coercion is basically reducible to his idea of reciprocity. Something which ‘cannot be mutually acknowledged’ is in Rawls’s terms ‘a resort to coercion’ (CW 63-4). Implicitly, this suggests that fair but imposed relations are somehow not coercive. Provision of anything in excess over reciprocity is seen by Rawls as imposing a comprehensive doctrine (JAFAR 96). Implicitly, therefore, Rawls believes that it is coercion for X, an outsider, to demand of Y anything beyond the system of reciprocity even for a great good (or even for personal survival), whereas it is not coercion for Y, an insider, to demand of X the total negation of X’s desire, life-world, or even X’s life on the basis of this system. One can therefore see how central this idea is to Rawls’s entire schema. (Notice how one has a right to self-defence, but only against ‘unreasonable force’ - anything above such self-defence is taken to be the imposition of one’s own beliefs - PL 247).

One should note how the primary concern here is negative: the first “right” applies, not to people in general, but to an in-group defined as always-already submissive, and the right it affords them is a right to make repressive demands on others - in other words, to construct themselves as an exclusionary in-group imposing a system of rules. Further, the in-group defines itself as superior by means of its sacrifices, most especially its sacrifices of liberty. It is also crucial to notice that the structure of Rawls’s claim is primarily negative: it is not that those who cooperate demand first and foremost some positive good, but rather, that they have a right to demand that those who do not cooperate get nothing. The imperative “thou shalt not free-ride” seems to take precedence over any imperative against exclusion or discrimination, over any desire for freedom, over any concern for basic needs - and maybe even over the entitlements of insiders. First of all, one must not benefit without doing one’s share; this seems to be even more important than the idea that one has a right to one’s share if one has “contributed”. There is an implicit claim about psychology lurking behind this model, namely that people should negatively orient to the unfair gains of others (typically social outsiders), prior to orienting to any positive good or demand (since the negative imperative that those who do not cooperate must not benefit is one of the premises from which positive entitlements are deduced). Thus, others are to be conceived implicitly as primarily threats: as someone who is stealing, or may steal, one’s own jouissance, perhaps. Thus, one is supposed to desire that others be repressed so they cannot gain unfairly, and to order this desire prior to any desire for freedom for oneself. One can hardly find a clearer example of reactive structuring: the primary right is not a right, but a duty to encode - or perhaps, a right to retain one's reactive character-structure through the encoding of all flows. (Notice also that others do not have to consent to a set of rules in order to be bound by them: it is enough that they ‘benefit’ - presumably as defined by the in-group). Desire is assumed, furthermore, to be self-based rather than interpersonal (in all cases), which renders others as threats to one’s own desire or competitors for desired objects.

Cooperation is supposed to be distinct from a system of command, and other such forms of social organisation. However, Rawls never makes clear how one tells a system of command from a system of rules imposed by a primary group who “cooperate” on others who allegedly “benefit”. Also, once Rawls starts defining “cooperation” in technical ways, away from its everyday usage, the claim that “cooperation” improves outcomes becomes more and more problematic. Rawls has ruled out any kind of social organisation except for a system of seriality constructed around generalised submission to institutions and rules (a big Other which serves as guarantor that seriality will not break down). He does not consider other possibilities, such as fused group, pledged group, etc. He simply takes the one form of social organisation he discusses for granted. (I suspect that “free rider” theory is one of the reasons for this narrowness of focus). Rule-fixation has a special role in his theory because it allows the possibility to separate the idea of fraternity from a kind of direct libidinal concern for others which he sees as unrealistic in ‘the wider society’ (TJ 90). Hence, concern for others is overcoded or even supplanted by obedience to rules. For Rawls, a desire to follow rules ‘impartially and consistently’ and what he calls ‘obedience to system’ involves concern for others: ‘to accept the consequences of the application of public norms’ is ‘intimately connected with’ a desire or willingness ‘to recognize the rights and liberties of others’ and to distribute benefits and burdens fairly (TJ 52). Without the various duties Rawls groups under the heading ‘duty of civility’, he claims that conflict between doctrines would be rendered inevitable by ‘bitterness and resentment’ (CW 610). I suspect that the obviousness to many readers of the idea of “benefits” or “advantages” of cooperation results from its operation as a weasel-word, i.e. that what readers accept may be the “benefits” of socially coordinated activity and not specifically of cooperation. (For instance, the issue of the benefits of the division of labour is an issue of social coordination and not specifically of cooperation). Rawls does not demonstrate the superiority of “cooperation” over other forms of coordinated activity, drawing instead on the benefit of the weaselly operation of the word “cooperation”. To take a counterpoint, Hakim Bey (Immediatism p. 16) claims that people are kept apart by alienation and the law. Furthermore, the overcoding of concern for others with obedience to rules involves substitutionism: in practice, one replaces a loyalty to concrete people with a loyalty to the system over and against people, and one ends up concerned mainly with one particular group of people, i.e. the state. The confusion of obedience with concern for others also acts as a block on concern for the effect of rules on others.

Alongside the construction of others as threat, there is a randomising tendency in the treatment of desires, conceptions of the good and comprehensive doctrines. These are never treated as having a substantive basis of their own, but arise as an endless series of possible claims which are generated by a “what if…” gesture. In this way, the field of claims to be assessed and overcoded by “justice” is removed from the context of concrete power-relations. This is crucial because it constructs an asymmetry between these doctrines and the ideology of the state: the latter, too, is unaccounted-for in concrete terms, but, whereas the former is treated as a chaotic mass open to sudden and inexplicable changes (‘what if an intolerant sect suddenly becomes dominant?’ ‘what if someone decides for no reason that he doesn’t want any drains?’ ‘what if someone suddenly decides he has a claim on his neighbour’s land?’), the latter is treated as clear and decisive. The libidinal significance of this is clear: the former (“individuals” and “groups”) become a source of psychological insecurity, whereas the latter becomes a source of certainty, a way of pinning down the uncertainty caused by the former. All this is established at a purely rhetorical level, with little or no concrete argument. Furthermore, this is a common feature of liberal arguments, not a specific feature of Rawls’s theory. (It also allows evasion of concrete issues of similarities in the libidinal basis of liberalism and of some of its most anathematised others. Religious intolerance, fascism and sadistic violence rely on reactive structures which are not any considerable distance from those underlying Rawls’s own theory. It is, therefore, ironic that opposition to reactive sadism should justify a reactive and implicitly sadistic statist position).

One should also note a link between Rawls’s conclusions and his construction of the self around a mythical model of “human nature” (rather than conceptions of the world and a concept of value-rationality, for instance). As a result of this construction, Rawls adopts the standpoint of a social engineer, manipulating an object with knowable properties, as if from the position of a panoptical gaze. Instead of trying to persuade people to act in line with his views, he proposes to manipulate existing people, with their existing beliefs, into acting in line with it. This shows the dangerously objectifying impulses contained in his project. However, he presents his model in utopian terms. The theory is justice ‘defines the conditions under which the spontaneous coherence of the aims and wants of individuals is neither coerced nor contrived but expresses a proper harmony consistent with the ideal good’ (TJ 249). In this sense, it is supposed to express something which would be desirable even beyond the “circumstances of justice”.

Rawls’s people are fundamentally petty-minded, and in my view, petty-mindedness is the core of Rawls’s model of so-called “reciprocity”. Petty-mindedness operates as a repressive reduction to sameness: basically, its first position is to resent excess (“if he has a right to do it, so do I (even if I have no reason to)!”) and therefore to construct sameness repressively. (One might also call it a “Jobsworth mentality” or “stinginess”, and the concerns about balance, moral accounting and reduction to sameness echo the mentality Barthes labels ‘petty-bourgeois’). People are not supposed primarily to give reciprocity or even to offer it, but rather, to demand it of others (perhaps even to demand it as a condition of any activity on their own part). By projecting this reductive model onto all negotiations, it sabotages any possibility of recognising difference. It is, in my view, this subjective attitude which “necessitates” the state in Rawls’s theory (see below). Its costs are therefore great, and its gains are virtually nonexistent. It strikes me that it is a self- and other-destructive attitude, and that it is extreme folly to glorify it with ethical labels. One renders oneself unable to enjoy intensively because of always being on the lookout for others who haven’t “done their share” (and, perhaps, by hating the part of oneself which wishes to evade the logic of place), and petty-mindedness thus has destructive and harmful psychological effects. The social effect of petty-mindedness is even more disastrous: insiders engage in paranoiac witch-hunts to find those who might be getting more than their share, leading to benefit cuts, intolerable entry hurdles for provision, anti-immigrant prejudice and similar forms of oppression. The system of demands for conformity and the hurdles to receiving anything (even when in desperate need) are such as to render it “irrational” to be petty-minded. Petty-mindedness leads to a situation where there is no ‘give’ in the social system, where restrictions and requirements cannot adapt to even the slightest excess, and this is a generalised threat to everyone, but especially to the different and the vulnerable. (Even “pure proceduralism”, such as forcing the person who cuts the cake to have the last piece, is petty-minded and distrustful). Petty-mindedness is an extreme form of possessive individualism. In a way, it is the return of the fear of the ‘irrational’ which underlies the construction of the moral person: what is repressed in the ideal of the person returns as a threat, with a response of generalised surveillance against it. (There may be a link between petty-mindedness and the metaphor of the contract, since a contract is binding only on signatories vis-à-vis other signatories, and also because the contract is a central part of bourgeois accounting and linked to wage-labour relations: the inviolability of contracts only seems obvious from a standpoint of capitalistic abstraction, outside of power-relations). I would also add that Rawls’s stress on petty-mindedness as if it were universal amounts to “special pleading” for a particular psychological type, over and against others (i.e. those people who have a non-expansive “conception of the good” and seek guarantees from an external Master). Anything this group is forced to concede to others becomes for Rawls a form of injustice, and the “reasonable” seems to be the sphere of the total dominance of this group.

The harmful effects of petty-mindedness are clearer when one also factors in the power-relations involved in social systems which attempt a more-or-less total territorialisation of space (for some combination of the “public” discourse and the permitted “private” conceptions). Because such a system tends to monopolise spaces and resources, and because it tends to make people dependent on itself, the petty-minded insistence that those who benefit must submit and conform operates in practice as an unconditional demand for conformity. This tends to efface the distinction between liberal and authoritarian imperatives. In practice, people who live in an intensively territorialised world can always-already be said to “benefit”, since the system monopolises control and distribution of goods and services; as a result, the image of a “fair” contract is a misrepresentation of a de facto system of blackmail which uses people’s vulnerability and (often enforced) dependence as a basis to demand unconditional submission. If someone does good only on condition that others also do good, it strikes me that the sadistic desire to compel others to “contribute” must be the driving force behind the desire to “do good” in the first place, with the result that such apparent “goodness” is in fact a veil for passive aggressivity. (Rawls seems to accept that it is somehow good that one group can style itself as “normal”, territorialise all space and then force everyone else to conform to its own terms of “reciprocity”). “Good” would, rather, involve a prefigurative and unconditional mode of action which does not demand that others be forced to “do their part” also, i.e. to conform to a logic of place.

Petty-mindedness is linked to an emphasis on the logic of sameness and place. The idea of ‘sameness’ may sound obvious to many people, but it becomes a little less clear when one tries to specify it. For instance, civil disobedience is supposed to be conditional on the dissenter taking the position, and being prepared to ‘accept the consequences’ of it, that everyone else may exercise the same right if subject to the same degree of injustice (CW 184-5). What, however, is the same degree? One would then have to quantify who is and is not really oppressed. Clearly such slogans could be used against the disobedient on the grounds that they are not oppressed enough, again invoking the petty-mindedness of others who are supposedly just as oppressed but who do not resist. One should add to this that people are also assumed in Rawls’s work to be tailist (to submit to existing relations) rather than creative/prefigurative. This is expressed in Rawls’s view that people ‘answer in kind’ (JAFAR 196). Instead of enabling difference, therefore, Rawls’s theory is a reduction to sameness, and tolerance is dependent on a certain kind of formal equivalence which is repressive of actual life-worlds. (Intensive libidinal investments make reduction to sameness impossible, because one set of intensive investments may be incomprehensible to someone with another set).

Having constructed people as threats (c.f. section on the Rational), Rawls then feels a need to counteract tendencies to instability arising from individuals: ‘normal tendencies to injustice’ which one should ‘resist’ (PL 142). There are for him two such dangers which a theory must counteract: firstly, ‘From a self-interested point of view each person is tempted to shirk doing his share’, and secondly, since participation ‘is predicated on the belief that others will do their part’, the system is unstable unless one reasonably believes others are so doing - especially in cases where it is risky to contribute if others do not (TJ 295-6). Forces of instability are built into rational individuals via the advantages of first-person and free-rider egoism: the fact that someone can have ‘the best of both worlds’ and benefit from others’ cooperative labours without putting in the necessary contribution oneself (e.g. by concealment) (TJ 435). A reasonable human psychology includes a need for assurances of certain kinds (CW 445). The role of the state is ‘removing temptations of the first kind’ (TJ 296). He also says that a sense of justice (via guilt) performs such a role, though he seems to think that this alternative to state violence does not stop the latter also being necessary (TJ 435). For Rawls, it is this need for a guarantee from outside which necessitates acceptance of coercion, regardless of whether others consent or even benefit from it. Such a dominant state is needed because a lack of a general obligation to consent would reduce belief that others would do their part and therefore require greater reliance on coercion to achieve stability (TJ 295-6). (One can note how stability is taken to be an unconditional good sufficiently important to justify coercion. Notice how individuals, not the state, are the main danger to be guarded against according to Rawls).

Rawls directly links the state to his fear of free-riders. If one is unable to rely on others, ‘it may be irrational or self-sacrificial’ to act on reasonable principles, given the way people are. ‘Without an established public world, the reasonable may be suspended’ (PL 54). One will only cooperate ‘provided others can be relied on to do likewise’ (PL 81). For Rawls, the free rider problem precludes voluntary agreement on public goods, and therefore legitimates state coercion. The sense of justice is assumed to be sufficient to make people “do their part”, but only if they have an assurance that others do the same, and ‘in normal circumstances a reasonable assurance in this regard can only be given if there is a binding rule effectively enforced’ (TJ 236). (NB this seems to suggest the priority of the second principle of justice over the first principle of justice in any case where state force is used to enforce the latter). Hence, ‘the use of coercion is perfectly rational from each man’s point of view’, even in a well-ordered society. Rawls sees agreement as contractual in the sense that a firm assurance is needed (TJ 236). The state is also to have a role as a corrector of situations where costs to others are ignored (TJ 237). The state is necessary to manufacture good outcomes. Rawls does not even think good people can produce good from their own decisions (TJ 237). Everyone wants assurance that the agreement ‘will be adhered to if he is willingly to do his part’, and this can only be achieved by means other than coercion in very small communities involving direct interpersonal trust (TJ 237) (in other words, psychologically relies on the coercion of others as the only basis to justify “his” own submission). This view is illogical, since, if one knows others to adhere to beliefs supportive of a sense of justice, one would have as much of a guarantee of their compliance - maybe more so - than one can get from their being subject to state violence. ‘In a well-ordered society the required sanctions are no doubt mild and they may never be applied. Still, the existence of such devices is a normal condition of human life even in this case’ (TJ 237). In other words, Rawls naturalises the state. He aims, in his own terms, to identify situations requiring a ‘binding collective undertaking’ needing an assurance, and to direct the state towards these situations. ‘It is here that the mere existence of an effective sovereign, or even the general belief in his efficacy, has a central role’ (TJ 238). The state is to be a guarantor of the system of sameness.

In one passage, Rawls expresses this view especially clearly. ‘It is reasonable to assume that even in a well-ordered society the coercive powers of government are to some degree necessary for the stability of social cooperation. For although men know that they share a common sense of justice and that each wants to adhere to the existing arrangements, they may nevertheless lack full confidence in one another… The general awareness of these temptations [i.e. not to do one’s part just in case others aren’t] may eventually cause the scheme to break down. The suspicion that others are not honoring their duties and obligations is increased by the fact that, in the absence of the authoritative interpretation and enforcement of the rules, it is particularly easy to find excuses for breaking them… The role of an authorized public interpretation of rules supported by collective sanctions is precisely to overcome this instability. By enforcing a public system of penalties government removes the grounds for thinking that others are not complying with the rules. For this reason alone, a coercive sovereign is presumably always necessary… [T]he existence of effective penal machinery serves as men’s security to one another’ (TJ 211). It is, therefore, as if others want to adhere, but are somehow banned from doing so - unless the state intervenes to ensure that they must do what they want. The agency banning one from simply doing what one wants seems to be fear of others, who become a source of threat, in the form of “making excuses” (i.e. writerly readings of rules). Of course, Rawls has not explained why one would trust the government, firstly not to legislate in favour of its own interests (i.e. find its own “excuses”), and secondly not to support unjust claims over just ones. The state would also seem to be constructing only an image that others are cooperating; it is not clear why this would solve actual problems. (Penal regimes do not show that others are cooperating, only that there is a threat that they will be made to suffer if they do not. It seems to me more logical to link this to an unconscious drive to harm others, so as to affirm the superiority of the in-group, rather than as a guarantee between equals).

Alongside the free rider problem, Rawls also raises the prisoners’ dilemma (TJ 238). This raises crucial questions, because in actual situations the dilemma is unlikely to arise as counter-finality: assuming that the prisoners are members of some kind of community of action, which could be anything from an underground revolutionary party to a street gang, they are likely to have an ethic of “not snitching” which guards against the prisoners’ dilemma, to mutual benefit. They will have such an ethic, which may or may not be at all enforceable, precisely because as thinking beings they are aware of the risks of this kind of situation, and also because they relate to state agents not as one rational individual to another but as agents acting in particular concrete power-relations. Therefore, what is needed is not state coercion - the big Other as guarantor - but a more active ethos of “just do it”, i.e. of prefiguration and creative activity, combined with horizontal and rhizomatic forms of organisation. This eliminates the need for someone else (i.e. the state) to act first. (Rawls implicitly admits this when he remarks that, if the prisoners acted according to the two principles, the dilemma would be resolved).

Rawls exaggerates the importance of the free-rider problem, probably as a cover for his commitment to petty-mindedness. The problem is constructed as follows: that in a particular situation, all participants have an interest in an act which sustains a particular arrangement; however, an individual’s interest in evading her/his contribution may outweigh this because of the marginal impact of any particular act of evasion. (X values the public good more than the benefit of evasion, but does not have to face a straight choice between the two). This problem would seem to be negated simply by a general ethical commitment to contributing. (As regards Rawls’s chosen example of income tax - TJ 211 - one might look at Scott’s Weapons of the Weak and the relative effectiveness of the official and unofficial zakat schemes, both of which could loosely be termed redistributive taxation schemes: the state-enforced scheme was unsuccessful because it was widely evaded, whereas the unofficial scheme was widely observed by poorer peasants, without any formal coercive sanctions backing it). If a number of people are all aware that free riding would jeopardise some good from which they benefit, they would surely take this into consideration. Furthermore, an arrangement of this kind can by definition sustain a certain amount of free riding, as Rawls implicitly admits (?LN 15). The problem only becomes serious if the level of free-riding becomes sufficient to jeopardise the arrangement, in which case the dilemma itself changes: if people have even a marginal tendency to prefigure, then sufficient numbers will begin to contribute again. The problem, therefore, is not so much practical as narrowly psychological: Rawls, in common with many insiders, feels disgusted that others might not be “doing their part” (probably due to resentment in the Nietzschean sense), so the elimination of free riders becomes an issue of first priority, notwithstanding whether it is of any practical import whatsoever. The fact that others are not doing their part is assumed to be good reason for not doing one’s part oneself, because of the repressive assumption of a logic of sameness. It is important to be clear on this issue so as also to be clear on the “benefits” which derive from an enforced system of reciprocity: these “benefits” are not the public goods Rawls cites, but simply a psychological satisfaction accruing to petty-minded people based on the security of the system of place and the logic of sameness. (Rawls’s arguments also show the contradictions between rational choice theory and any kind of ethics of the gift or of prefiguration, including any idea of unconditional rights. Gift economy does not require the participation of everybody in any particular activity, whereas exchange economy tends to do this. The effectiveness of gift economy depends on minimising petty-mindedness, since this is a major reason for not participating in a gift economy).

It is particularly problematic to assume that people will feel a need for guarantees given the other assumptions of Rawls’s theory. For instance, he assumes that people will reciprocate (see above), that performance of social duties is itself a good due to the Aristotelian Principle and that people are basically social, requiring others’ approval in order to have self-esteem or a worthwhile life (see PSYCHOLOGY AND ETHICS section). (Rawls claims - PL 322-3 - that people’s sociable nature necessitates reciprocity. This is contentious. Clearly a sociable nature would necessitate interpersonal relations, but it would precisely not necessitate a kind of sociability which rests on the assumption that people are egoistic). If X knows that Y will reciprocate something which is to Y’s benefit, X will trust Y not to free-ride enough that X will feel it to be rational to contribute. If X knows that Y requires X’s approval for Y’s sense of wellbeing, X will feel this fear of disapproval to be sufficient sanction to prevent Y from free-riding. In other words, Rawls’s oscillation between rational-choice egoism and over-socialised models of “human nature” leads him into self-contradiction. Rawls also oscillates as regards the relative priority between the reasonable and the rational. In theory, he believes that the former is prior, but his claim that without guarantees the reasonable, because irrational, would be suspended would seem to invert this claim. In any case, if the reasonable is in excess over the rational, some agent has to embody an excess which is inexplicable in rational terms, or else the reasonable cannot exist. As I shall show later, the state takes the role of this extra-rational agent.

It is because of Rawls’s fear of free-riders (e.g. tax dodgers) - a fear which seems to overwhelm all else - that he constructs a principle that one must participate in order to benefit (CW 60-1). People are to benefit if their cooperation makes advantages possible (CW 128). Hence the primacy of “thou shalt not free-ride” over positive and active principles. The standpoint from which Rawls constructs ethics is that of a resentful and submissive person who above all hates others who “benefit” without “contributing”. As a result, his theory takes the form of a repressive system of ‘moral accounting’ (Barthes) to alleviate the concerns such a petty-minded person might have. Such concerns not to disgust people with such a demeaned outlook seems to trump all other concerns, including concerns such as freedom and humaneness. One is supposed to be closed-minded and petty about others’ claims; Rawls’s ethics is a radical negation of an ethics of the gift. (One should also note the flawed assumption that the work-system creates only advantages. What if the system also produces disadvantages, for instance by territorialising spaces which could otherwise be used by outsiders? Doesn’t this lead to a duty to outsiders?)

There is a moral disjuncture in Rawls’s theory: how can one justify the massive measures of force and threat mobilised by the state, simply so as to remove minor ‘temptations’? Why should the petty-minded insistence that others not free-ride be so extensive as to necessitate such drastic measures? Can violence really be justified as some kind of insurance policy? (NB how Rawls’s schema depends on there being one who “acts first” and who therefore establishes the system of equivalence - similar to the One, the master-signifier, in Lacanian theory. However, individuals cannot adopt this position prefiguratively, since for Rawls they would have to be saintly to do this. Therefore, instead of there being a first act “by example” which establishes the order of sameness, Rawls licenses the imposition of this order by a One who imposes supreme last-instance mastery. It is possible that the idea of state-as-guarantor is a displaced expression of a belief in the master-signifier as guarantor of meaning. There also seems to be a link between the state as guarantor and the myth of deterrence). The model of people who want something but who have to be coerced in order to be able to achieve it also suggests the operation of themes which are not openly declared and are probably unconscious.

It is not at all clear why people conceived as capable of the enormous sacrifice of “rationally” supporting a violent state because of the value of public goods should be conceived as incapable of the far less risky gesture of acting prefiguratively on behalf of public goods, without “guarantees” from the state (a gesture which would be necessary for people to have any actual autonomy in ethical matters). (Rawls’s conception of reciprocity seems to preclude prefiguration. See e.g. TJ 447. It should also be added that his attitude to “circumstances” and others’ “unjust” acts is non-prefigurative: Rawls justifies acting “unjustly” on the basis of others’ “injustice” or of “circumstances” unconducive to justice, and therefore submits to or even duplicates an “unjust” reality. “Justice” is not to operate prefiguratively in such cases). Rawls is in fact demanding far more of people than the various ideas he dismisses as unrealistic, because he requires a primary and total submission to an alienated regime of rules which is given swingeing bulldozer powers and enabling rights which allow it to override individual concerns and treat desires as having ‘no weight’. This is a demand for sacrifices and submission to this particular group which are far in excess of those required to achieve, say, the same outcomes by means of horizontal prefigurative relations. In order for X to enter into an unguaranteed scheme of cooperation, X would have to accept that Y would do Y’s part, when X has no good reason to do this; however, X would not have to alienate any basic desires or freedoms to Y over and above those given voluntarily for the scheme in question. To accept Rawls’s scheme, X would have to perform the same gesture of unfounded trust in relation to the state, but would have to alienate freedoms and desires far more radically. In other words, if it is irrational or unreasonable for someone to trust others enough to act prefiguratively, it is immeasurably more irrational or unreasonable for someone to trust one particular other person (the state) to act as a guarantor. If someone wants a “public good” enough, she/he would be prepared to do a “share” or more, without insisting that all who “benefit” do a “share”. Furthermore, while in the first case X’s libidinal energies would be engaged directly, in the latter case they would have to go through a more complex two-stage distorting process (since they would have to go through repression and the construction of a sense of justice) which would clearly weaken the resultant energies. There is no “logical” reason why the pursuit of guarantees through the state is more “realistic” than prefigurative rhizomatic relations. I suspect the illogical assumption that such an approach is more “realistic” is based simply on the fact of the existence of the state. However, the operation in practice of a set of relations which are deemed unrealistic through the consistent application of a set of premises would seem to disprove the premises, not to justify such an illogical manoeuvre. If Rawls’s premises about the necessity of petty-mindedness are falsified in this way, it opens the possibility for the forms of life he perceives as “unrealistic”. (To put it another way, if normal people today are able to enter into productive relations via the mediation of relations of mutual submission to the state as “guarantor” but are unable to establish the same productive relations through free voluntary activity, this is proof, not of a logical necessity, but of a pervasive irrationality in the normal psyche, an irrationality which has disastrous effects in terms of logically unnecessary violence, resentment and losses of creative energy).

Rawls defines reciprocity within the reasonable, and for this reason it tends to become ideological. In other words, non-reciprocal relations, especially authority-relations, are part of the society Rawls envisages. However, these are referred back to a theory which establishes a last-instance reciprocity underlying the system in general. This displacement into alterity suggests that the image of reciprocity is anyway fantasmatic, and if such reciprocity-in-alterity is sufficient to meet the desire for reciprocity, this desire cannot have been very strong in the first place.

Prefiguration (one might say: the gift of a “free ride”) is far safer than reactive reciprocity because it does not justify violence for a reason as small as the equivalent of a political down-payment. It also would lead to far fewer dangers of intrusion, as well as minimising the risk of a particular group imposing its own view (since no-one would have a monopoly on coercion). (One could also add that, if the demand that people be “rational” is taken to be an ethical imperative rather than simply a description, it is easier to call for altruism than to demand that people first develop “selfish” impulses and then curb these. While more problematic in terms of concrete outcomes, the two-step process helps the state, which can benefit from the psychological repression and self-flagellation it necessitates. cf. also “The Revolutionary Pleasure of Thinking for Yourself”, which gives a directly “selfish” case for solidaristic “altruism”. One could also add that self-interest is the best argument against petty-minded egoism, because this kind of egoism crushes the self twice over: once by self-alterity and once more by authoritarianism. Bergmann reproduces Rawls’s assumption that the idea of egoism leads to an assumption of authoritarianism - as, indeed, it often does in practice. In fact, the problem is concealed because the social outcomes which exist, or which liberals believe exist, in the present are impossible if egoism is assumed. Faith in the state therefore provides an excuse which can reconcile theoretical and empirical claims).

There are in fact two kinds of reciprocity: active or prefigurative reciprocity (“do as you would be done by” - or, one might say, “masters without servants”) and reactive reciprocity (“be done by as you did”). Rawls’s commitment is uncontentious in its commitment to the latter. A case in point involves Rawls’s opposition to the idea that the intolerant have a right to protest at not being tolerated. It is only in reactive reciprocity that the problem arises of seeking guarantees from others first (before acting or committing). (Similarly, his idea that it is unfair to demand of others what one would not have them demand of oneself seems primarily to be turned outwards, with the self, conceived as legislator, almost exempted). One should note, however, how the latter kind of reciprocity has absolutely no creative capacity: it can only reproduce the present. It tends, indeed, to disrupt creativity, since this depends on excess. Further, this logic is “entropic” and escalatory, turning conflicts into a spiral of retribution. Perhaps just as crucially, such a system could not found itself. The founding gesture of a regime of reactive reciprocity has to come from a radical outside: this is why the problem of “guarantees” arises. The logic of petty-mindedness cannot initiate anything, so someone has to exceed its logic in order to construct and maintain a social system of any kind. Hence, the state arises in Rawls’s theory above and outside the logic of “reciprocity” and petty-mindedness. The state’s commitment to realise certain kinds of public goods must be assumed in order for it to occupy the standpoint of “guarantor”, yet the state (as a contingent set of people, i.e. a “group”) cannot have an interest in doing this if it is itself constructed in line with reactive reciprocity. It would, rather, have the same interest in first-person dictatorship (by the statist in-group) and/or in free-rider egoism as anyone else, and it would in addition, due to its monopoly on certain kinds of coercion, have the ability to impose this dictatorship and/or its own exceptions. (This is true regardless of how many different organisations operate as part of the state, and even if they “check and balance” to some extent, since, for one organisation to be checked so it has incentives to act correctly, another must have the power to dispense the incentives; the only counterbalance could be the threat of revolt, which Rawls tries to impede and which ruins the point of having a sovereign anyway). The state must therefore relate to others in a non-reciprocal way, through a “constitutive crime” of prefigurative construction, and others must similarly suspend their petty-mindedness in the case of the state (or else it would constantly be the object of suspicion). The state must also remain mystified, hence the reliance on the idea that “principles” regulate. The admission that the regulators are themselves people would problematise the basic conception of the person: the state somehow has to be exempt from the “laws” of human nature and/or psychology. Hence, one finds Rawls writing, not of dominance by one particular group, but of ‘collective sanctions’ and of actions by the body of citizens as a whole against individual citizens, clearly a mystifying terminology. This serves to conceal the problem of the status of the state, and as to the exceptional trust one must place in it vis-à-vis other individuals and groups. (In practice, the state is in certain respects prone to self-preference - for instance, regarding MPs’ pay, special offences associated with police (e.g. assaulting police and resisting arrest), and police use of catch-all laws and “discretion” to penalise defiance of them or of their preferred model of society).

The state’s role is therefore psychological, not practical: patently, the problem Rawls posits cannot logically be solved by the construction of a state, because the elevation of one group to a position of primacy could not at all eliminate the conflict between groups. The single group which managed to seize excessive power by becoming a state could relate to the others only as an especially severe menace. How, after all, could they guarantee that the state itself would obey the fair terms of cooperation? There would be no way to guarantee this. In other words, the state provides the moment when reactive ethics is guaranteed in an active gesture. What is dangerous is that this moment of suspension is identified with an actually-existing repressive apparatus. Put simply: if the state can perform its prefigurative role of guaranteeing a system of reciprocity, then this role is unnecessary, because reactive reciprocity is not a necessary feature of human psychology. It follows from this statement that Rawls is not taking a general position, but is generating an ethics which serves one particular group at the expense of others. More specifically, he is constructing an ethics which serves the psychological desires of those who demand “assurances” before they act, and is doing this at the expense of causing harm to others. If one further reads the demand for assurance as a variety of Nietzschean resentment, i.e. a desire first of all to cause harm to others who do not “do their part” (as is suggested by the apparent primacy of the negative over the positive formulation, i.e. one is first of all to forego unfair gains), this selective and partial standpoint also breaches Rawls’s taboo against sadistic structures of desire and his claim that he has factored envy out of the original position. Its “trade-off” allows harm to outsiders in return for “assurances” for the petty-minded.

It seems to me that, if someone wishes to “enforce” a system by means of coercion, this is not an internal insurance device but a means of dominating others who do not wish to live within the same system. If someone does not believe in something sufficiently to act on it regardless of whether there are “guarantees” from others (i.e. prefiguratively), then this person does not really want it in an unconditional sense, but is torn between this alignment and something else (as in the classic formula for obsessional desire). This suggests one of two things: either the resort to coercion is a means for dominating others and nothing to do with an internal “need” for a guarantee, or liberal subjects are split between a desire for a liberal system and a repressed desire to resist or escape such a system. In either case, the split in question is not a legitimate basis for coercion. The state is only needed to impose a way of acting, not to “guarantee” something which is otherwise desired. (Furthermore, in either case, liberalism is not as benevolent as Rawls and other liberals portray it).

(This also affects the idea that state violence is necessary to make “agreement” possible in large societies. Not only is this assumption problematic - why can’t agreement come from allied syndicates or a hegemonic conception of the world, and why must large societies be kept intact? - statism cannot practically guarantee “agreement” anyway. If, therefore, such a guaranteeing role “works” in practice, it shows the existence of an irrational set of assumptions which political theory should problematise).

The state as non-reciprocal violence is, furthermore, problematised by the assumption of a natural tendency to reciprocity: if people reciprocate what others do for or to them, the state’s non-reciprocal violence is likely to be reciprocated; one might say that the state’s constitutive crime causes all the other crimes as a reciprocal reply to the state.

Empirically, the “need” for reciprocity is simply nonexistent, except as a psychological demand made by some reactively-structured people. The role of protest and resistance movements, who by definition cannot have a guarantee in the form of state power, is particularly indicative here: those who fight a repressive government in order to win greater freedoms do not stop to ask whether all the others who would benefit from these freedoms are also resisting, and do not demand a guarantee that others resist as a condition for their own activity. cf. also eco-warriors, whose activity protects other humans and living things but who do not, of course, demand any payback. (Perhaps one could also imagine the amusing image of a Rawlsian animal rights activist who expects the mink and beagles to break her/him out of jail). It is more than possible for political movements to “learn lessons” from failures due to problems of a “free rider” type, and to therefore negate the problem by an effort of will. An example is the use of the famous Bonhöffer quote (“first they came for the communists…” etc.) by anti-fascists. The quote involves a direct imperative not to “free-ride” because of harmful long-term effects, without there being any possibility of state violence “guaranteeing” the imperative. In practice, anti-free-rider discourse is politically harmful, because it encourages measures such as benefit cuts, privatisation and charging for public services. Rawls hints that he supports such neo-liberal barbarism when he states that he wants to ensure that there is no ‘discouraged and depressed underclass… chronically dependent on welfare’ (JAFAR 140). This repetition of Charles Murray’s rhetoric about the poor suggests that Rawls has reference-points tying him to the ideologies and mythical constructs of the existing system.

Petty-mindedness is in fact quite widespread, and may sustain some people’s productivity. However, this does not render it a valid moral reason, any more than it would if a particular person’s serial-killing or wife-beating sustained social participation. Petty-mindedness requires forms of violence and oppression directed against others, and it is not an ethical position to sacrifice the different or excluded so as to sustain the functioning of a social system. It is very harmful in a variety of ways: firstly, in directly involving exclusion of those who fall beyond the logic of place; secondly, in creating rigid systems of regulation and gatekeeping of access to resources, which make this process harmful, stressful, exclusionary of the different and prone to err on the side of non-provision; and thirdly, in preventing any sense of openness. (Contrast reciprocal and prefigurative versions of tolerance. The former tolerates only tolerant people, whereas the latter tolerates a particular string of activities regardless of who commits them. In practice, liberalism is prefigurative not reciprocal in its attitude to tolerance).

The case of eco-warriors is doubly indicative because their prefigurative activity takes the form of defence of a “common good”: eco-warriors are rather better at defending the environment than states, and, far from being beneficiaries of the state’s claim to protect public goods, are most often the victims of state violence instead. One might say, therefore, that the state’s role is to make it more, rather than less, rational to “free ride” on the back of others’ activism. (On a similar point, one could challenge the capitalist metaphors involved in the concept of “free riders”: some ecological and anti-capitalist groups, such as Rising Tide and Ya Basta, have called for people to refuse to pay bus and train fares and/or to occupy buses or trains and demand free rides, as part of campaigns for free public transport. This is justified partly on grounds of background inequality, but also partly because free public transport is conceived as a necessity for environmental reasons, to reduce car use. If such arguments are valid, then, ironically, it is those who pay who are the real “free riders”). Also, many uprisings are inexplicable in terms of “free rider” discourse: each participant would have been “more rational” to leave the uprising to others. (This exclusion of actual phenomena is not surprising if one cross-references reciprocity with another of Rawls’s concerns: rationality. Someone who acts prefiguratively is implicitly “irrational” on Rawls’s definition, and therefore is socially excluded. I would be unsurprised if the application of Rawls’s theory anathematised those who exceed reciprocity in non-egoist directions. One might, for instance, say that someone who protects others from state violence is acting “altruistically” but would be anathematised in a Rawlsian society).

It may not only be the state which escapes reciprocity. It is unclear whether human rights are also excessive over reciprocity, and if so, whether they express something more fundamental to Rawls. (It seems unlikely, for the following reason: that Rawls is prepared to declare subsistence income to be a human right and yet to deny it to “surfers”. This suggests that human rights are limited to social insiders). However, the role of parents is certainly not reciprocal in the usual sense, and neither are any of the other duties to people who are only potentially “persons” (even when these take the form of repressive practices of normalisation). One may, for instance, have a duty to pay for others to be cured so they can become fully cooperating persons, or for a released prisoner to be rehabilitated. This is clearly prefigurative. Such excess over reciprocity (involving, so to speak, a primary imperative to construct “persons” capable of reciprocity) is unaccounted-for, and it is no coincidence that Rawls seems to view it as a job for the state. The position of the parent is the only instance where non-reciprocal and prefigurative activity is demanded outside the state. (Perhaps this is due to a metaphorical equivalence between father and state: both express the “name-of-the-father” or master-signifier, i.e. the point at which the normal functioning of the logic of sameness is suspended to enable it to function). (There is also the issue that petty-minded people may continue to feel unfairly remunerated despite all the state’s “guarantees”, especially in a society which is only approximately just. Nevertheless, they presumably remain active). There are also other occasions when Rawls assumes people can rise above petty-mindedness. There is, for instance, a need that people vote when voting on constitutional matters in a manner compatible with the ideal of public reason. There is, however, no guarantee: certainly, no-one is to be punished for voting on the basis of a comprehensive doctrine. The duty in this case is a simply moral duty of “civility”, with no legal or coercive support (PL 217, 219). One could also compare another instance of this duty: the refusal of a hermeneutics of suspicion (CW 478). The decision to trust others to have a reasonable basis for their views and not to be simply covering up self-interest, group interest or ideological delusion/illusion cannot be rationally based, since Rawls admits that such heteronomous bases for disagreement do in fact exist. It would have to involve an ungrounded “gift” of trust.

There is also a contradiction between petty-mindedness and various positions Rawls takes which suggest a social nature of humanity - for instance, the claim that the ‘skillful and devoted exercise of social duties’ is itself a major ‘human good’ (TJ 73; for more examples, see the Psychology and Ethics section). People would not need incentives to do something which is anyway a major good for them; their performance of it would itself be the incentive. Nor would they need guarantees based on rational-choice principles: it would anyway be rational to pursue something which is a higher-order good, especially if one could have faith in theories of human nature which show it is also a higher-order good for others.

On one occasion, Rawls explicitly favours prefiguration in the case of state action: a “people” (i.e. state) engaged in a just war is supposed to teach others by example, to show what kind of “people” it is and to show what kind of peace it wants (CW 566-7). This is a slightly veiled way of saying that a state should use tactics which prefigure a just peace, and should do this non-reciprocally (i.e. not conditional on the enemy state restricting itself similarly). This confirms that Rawls thinks that states but not people can and should act prefiguratively.


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