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Liberalism, Marxism, Equality and Living Well1
Christine Sypnowich

Department of Philosophy, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario


Contemporary political philosophers tend to think of the relation between liberalism and Marxism in terms of the former correcting the deficiencies of the latter, particularly on issues like human rights, the rule of law, or the efficiency of the market. However, in the case of distributive justice, it looks like it is the other way round. Egalitarianism is so central to contemporary liberal political philosophy it might be thought that Marxism, reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union and most ‘actually existing’ socialist societies, can declare at least one philosophical victory for the argument on behalf of the equal distribution of wealth. Not surprisingly, however, the endorsement by liberals of the principle of economic equality is not unqualified. Whereas Marx took the view that the remedy of inequality was bound up with a conception of wellbeing and the ideal of ‘communist man,’ liberal egalitarians argue for agnosticism about questions of how to live. Liberal egalitarians also part company with the Marxist ideal of distribution based on need, arguing that justice requires that inequality be remedied only in cases where disadvantage is the result of unchosen circumstances.

This essay argues for the value of Marx’s ideas for contemporary theories of equality. I contend that Marx and his followers developed a view of equality in terms of human flourishing that is illuminating and compelling. Moreover, the flourishing view can correct the deficiencies of contemporary liberal argument, such as the mire confronting egalitarians on the subject of individual responsibility and choice. Indeed, Marx’s ‘egalitarian perfectionism’ points to a robust political philosophy that can withstand common objections made to theories of equality, on the one hand, and theories of the good life, on the other.

Neutralist Egalitarianism

Flourishing is not the focus of most egalitarian theories in the liberal tradition. This is because most contemporary egalitarians are in some sense neutralists, uneasy with the idea of prescribing how to live. The idea of flourishing presupposes that we can delineate, in some more or less objective way, what counts as living well as opposed to living badly, in order to promote the former and discourage the latter. Neutralists contend, however, that individuals’ freedom to choose how to live should be respected and political theories that take a stand on what counts as living well are illiberal.

John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice set the terms for political philosophy after the subject had languished for most of the twentieth century. I do not pretend to offer a sustained analysis of Rawls’s position which is, after all, not devoid of perfectionist elements.2 Of interest here is Rawls’s idea of neutrality about the good. Rawls’s concept of the basic structure centres on the distribution of primary goods, those resources individuals need to pursue their projects and goals, whatever they may be. For Rawls, the exact nature of those projects and goals is not within the purview of political decision-making, or even political theorising. Questions of wellbeing are relegated to the personal domain, congruent with state neutrality about the good.

Under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, once goods (which include non-material goods) are allocated according to a just principle of distribution, whether people flourish or not is taken to be a matter of their own responsibility; as Rawls puts it, ‘it is assumed that the members of society are rational persons able to adjust their conceptions of the good to their situation.’3 According to his later work, in contrast to comprehensive liberalism, political liberalism stipulates that neither political theory nor political practice can take up the question of what constitutes a life well lived outside of its impact on citizens’ ability to sustain liberal society. Should society promote the arts? Preserve historic architecture? Conserve green spaces? Inculcate values of political engagement in its adult citizens? None of these questions, according to Rawls, is properly a political one. This seems a bizarre conclusion. If we consider the ideas of political philosophers prior

to Rawls, including liberals, let alone how politics is in fact practised in liberal societies, such matters so vital to the quality of citizens’ lives seem central to political debate.

Rawls does offer a caveat on his view about the scope of the political. There are issues, he admits, that are neither ‘constitutional essentials’ nor questions of basic justice, but which might have ‘fundamental importance’. Some examples are ‘national parks and preserving wilderness areas and plant species and laying aside funds for museums and the arts’. Political debate might legitimately take up such questions, and moreover the ‘restrictions of public reason may not apply to them’. 4 Rawls also qualifies his position by carefully noting that political values only normally or typically take precedence over the non-political.5

These qualifications are a welcome admission about the inevitability of certain governmental policies pertaining to human flourishing. But what Rawls has to say about them is distinctly unhelpful. Lumbered with his arbitrary divide between the political and comprehensive, Rawls leaves us unenlightened about how the two might be connected or reconciled. Yet, as I will argue, questions of human flourishing are essential to questions of equality.
Socialist Perfectionism

There are historical precedents for a flourishing account of equality; indeed, the entire nineteenth century egalitarian tradition can be said to have perfectionist assumptions. The socialist aesthete William Morris is a significant example of someone whose commitment to equality was shaped by a conception of living well.6 For him, there was no tension between perfectionism and egalitarianism.7 For Morris, the revitalization of the arts required society to interfere with ‘the privilege of private persons to destroy the beauty of the earth for their private advantage.’ 8 Morris is often said to have anticipated the philosophy of Britain’s National Trust, which found its aesthetic aims bound up with egalitarian policy: care of England’s historic buildings required public stewardship, and public stewardship entailed the principle of public access to their beauty.9

As Morris’s ideas evolved, he came to see, like his mentor John Ruskin, the constitutive link between egalitarianism and perfectionism. The idea of craftsmanship in particular evolved from an aesthetic concept to a political one, prompting a critique of the inequality of capitalism. ‘A very inequitably divided material prosperity’ meant that people ‘work as laboriously as ever they did,’ but have ‘lost the solace that labour once provided,’ that is, ‘the opportunity of expressing their own thoughts to their fellows by means of that very labour.’ And the result was the diminishing of the valuable: ‘cheap market wares,’ ‘mere scaffold-poles for building up profits.’10 Thus Morris’s aestheticism, ‘an act of rebellion against an ugly age’11 became a political struggle for equality centred on the idea of wellbeing.

Morris makes it clear that wellbeing is to be understood objectively, independent of people’s subjective views. As evidenced by the titles of his lectures, ‘How We Live and How We Might Live,’ ‘Useful Work versus Useless Toil,’ ‘True and False Society,’ Morris’s idea of social justice assumed a conception of value. Inequality had so degraded human beings that their choices were bound to be bad; reduced to a ‘skinny and pitiful existence’ the worker ‘scarcely knows how to frame a desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce.’12

Morris is not unusual among nineteenth century socialists in his desire to marry perfectionism with egalitarianism. Marx’s critique of inequality is also a critique of alienation and alienation is an inherently perfectionist concept. It refers, not just to the unfairness of economic hardship, but the distortion in values wrought by such hardship, making implicit appeal to the idea of the proper form life should take. Thus Marx’s case against capitalism centred on, for example, how money made for the ‘overturning of individualities,’ (105) its affront to the ‘nobility of man,’ (100) and the way in which its relations of private property make people ‘stupid and one-sided. 87) For Marx, economic inequality is wrong because it degrades human beings, robs them of dignity, self-determination, the ability to develop their capacities. The term degradation is illuminating, at once embodying both egalitarian and perfectionist elements.

At the core of Marx’s perfectionism is the concept of ‘species being’ which centres on human beings’ unique capacities and potential: how we participate in ‘conscious life activity,’ in which our productive powers, our ‘working up of the objective world,’ enable us to form things ‘in accordance with the laws of beauty.’13 Our unique capacity to labour, what Marx contended distinguished the ‘worst architect’ from the ‘best of bees,’ is the result of essential human characteristics that include, as David Leopold notes: consciousness, intentionality, language, co-operation, tool use and tool-making, productive activity and creative intelligence.14 Thus, as Marx puts it, in labour we duplicate ourselves, ‘intellectually but also actively,’ and therefore contemplate ourselves in the world we have created.15

Under capitalism work is alienated and thus we are unable to fully flourish. Communism restores to us our free, creative activity so that our labour becomes ‘not only a means of life but life’s prime want,’ making possible the ‘all-round development of the individual.’16. Leopold notes that for Marx, ‘fulfilling work is central to the good life for human kind.’ Human needs are diverse, Leopold notes, and include fellowship and community; moreover, Marx’s idea of human flourishing included such things as recreation, culture and emotional satisfaction.17

Morris was, of course, a follower of Marx, and pored over (though with some degree of difficulty), writings such as what he reverentially referred to as the ‘great work’ of Capital.18 One commentator contends that Ruskin’s ideas provided a natural route to Morris’s socialism which Marx’s writings served to confirm.19 Indeed it may be said, with a pleasing irony, that in the 1880s Morris anticipated Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, not published until long after Morris’s death.20

It was not just socialists who took the view that the community should foster worthwhile ways of living. We are so used to thinking of Mill in terms of a hackneyed harm principle that we overlook the perfectionist aspects of his thought. But as Anthony Appiah points out, a ‘my-freedom-ends-at-your-nose anti-paternalism’ fails to capture Mill’s concern for human development. In On Liberty the ‘cultivation of individuality’ emerges as society’s ultimate aim: ‘What more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be?’21

The idea that society seeks to enable individuals to live well continued to animate liberalism after Mill. L.T. Hobhouse considered the idea of a common culture vital to twentieth century liberalism when he wrote in 1911 that “we regard liberty as primarily of social interest, as something flowing from the necessities of continuous advance in those regions of truth and of ethics which constitute the matters of highest social concern.”22 Thus when early twentieth-century egalitarians married their ideal of equality to the principle of a public responsibility for the good life, they were helping themselves to a widely accepted view. R.H. Tawney, for example, affirmed a concern for ‘the perfecting of the individual,’ should have as its ‘manifestation an outlook on society which sympathised with the attempt to bring the means of a good life within the reach of all.’23

Socialists accordingly conceived their goals in terms of the constituents of flourishing. In the Fabian call for a National Minimum, for example, the distribution of leisure counted as much as the distribution of income, since it would enable individuals to ‘nurture and express their individuality.’24 William Beveridge, one of the architects of the British welfare state, refers to the amelioration of squalor and the elimination of idleness, rather than simply increasing income or resources. For Beveridge, the new commitment to the state provision of social welfare sought to elevate human fulfilment, capacities and character.25 The answer to the question of what it is we are trying to make more equal is flourishing, an answer that was – it appears – commonsensical for egalitarians in Morris’s time and some time thereafter.26
Capabilities and Flourishing

The socialist focus on human wellbeing has a contemporary version in the highly influential work of Amartya Sen. Sen argues that focusing on equitable shares of goods fails to take account that ‘what goods do for people’ is subject to enormous variation because of differing circumstances in how people live.27 Sen’s answer to ‘equality of what?’ is therefore not goods or preferences for goods, but ‘functionings’ or capabilities to achieve functionings.28 Sen’s capability view does not, however, directly tackle what I take to be the root of the problem of alternative approaches, which is their agnosticism about value. 29 Schemas such as that of Rawls are inadequate not just because of what Sen calls their ‘goods fetishism’ which takes insufficient account of the impact of goods on persons.30 The neutralism of egalitarian positions in the Rawlsian tradition is also a serious defect. Primary goods or resources are inadequate as a distributive measure because appeal to them fails to address the question of the purposes to which goods are put. What is bad about being poor is not simply having less money than other people, but also deprivation of the constituents of a valuable life.

These constituents can be grouped into three categories. First, there is the ability to choose how to live since, as all liberals must agree, a non-autonomous life falls short as a flourishing existence. A second constituent of wellbeing is objectively worthwhile pursuits, for there are better and worse ways of living and even the freely chosen pursuit can be defective. Finally, personal contentment is an important feature of flourishing, since freely chosen objectively valuable pursuits are inadequate sources of wellbeing if the person derives no pleasure or fulfillment from them. Though the valuable does not necessarily produce pleasure, this should not entail an austere version of perfectionism where pleasure figures as ‘an accretion’ relevant only insofar as worthy pursuits tend to produce it.31

It follows that wellbeing obviously involves more than the satisfaction of biological needs: people need food, shelter, and health, but they also need education, friendship and love, participation in public life, play and sport, experiences of nature, culture, and opportunities for intellectual reflection in order to enjoy wellbeing. Indeed, it may be that improvements in wellbeing derived from cultural, aesthetic and social pursuits are more important than improvements in physical wellbeing, once a threshold of some kind has been met.32 As Morris puts it ‘beauty, which is what is meant by art, using the word in its widest sense, is…no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life.’33

Wellbeing is not amenable to levelling. Egalitarians have sometimes suggested that we should aim to make people equal in all the constituents of human happiness, and where this is not possible, compensation should be provided. Shoeless Joe is poor, but has love and friendship. Rupert is rich, but has no friends. A life without friends is a life unequal to that of most human beings in a way that is of great importance to human contentment.34 The nineteenth century French utopian socialist, Charles Fourier, considered inequality in love and sex a matter of redistribution, and proposed that in utopia, the unattractive and uncharming would be befriended and romanced by those more fortunately endowed. 35

We can live under ideal conditions for flourishing and still fail to flourish; one’s lack of human relationships might just be the inevitable result of a certain kind of character. Some of us are like Eeyore in Winnie-the-Pooh: determined to take a grim look on life. Others of us resemble the lazy aristocrat Oblomov in Russian literature: slothful persons who don’t make the most of our potential. It is safe to assume that no society, however successful its policies, can wholly eliminate glumness or sloth. A flourishing approach must therefore accept shortfalls in flourishing that derive from personalities.

Although flourishing itself cannot be equalized, we can attend to levels of flourishing to determine whether shortfalls in flourishing are the result of conditions that can and ought to be improved by public policy. And we should have a demanding set of expectations as well as an imaginative preparedness to see the environmental roots of deficits in wellbeing. Strict equality is ruled out by my position because flourishing by its very nature cannot be precisely calibrated, let alone equalised. I will say little here about how flourishing is to be measured, but it follows from the flourishing idea that the just society will seek to bring its members up to a threshold of equal wellbeing, ambitiously understood. This is achieved by equalising flourishing at a base level and then raising it in stages, to ensure that the flourishing of the worst off is improved. The flourishing view thus construes egalitarianism in terms of sufficiency, but ambitiously understood.36 Sen’s argument brings these issues into focus for egalitarians, but he is reluctant to defend the perfectionist implications of his argument. For Sen, functioning, which involves the exercise of a capability, should be jettisoned in favour of mere capability, which gives scope for choice. Sen notes that capability, rather than functioning, has the advantage of leaving people free to decide what capabilities to realise. The idea of capability focuses on the accessibility of x, y, and z, even if people only opt for x.

However, wellbeing involves not just access to a fulfilling life, or the capacity for such a life, but living it.37 It would be a paltry ideal of communist man if it meant he merely had the opportunity to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, criticise after dinner, but opted instead for lying on the couch!38 A culture of fatalism and low expectations can be transmitted across generations so that people fail to flourish even when they have capabilities available to them that they lacked before. This suggests that capabilities depend on functioning; indeed, often we need to do things in order to be able to do them. It is greater equality of flourishing that is the proper aim of an egalitarian policy and the extent to which this aim is realized will be assessed according to, in considerable part, whether people actually flourish.


Desert and Distribution

Socialists tend to assume that the equal society will consist of industrious and fulfilled persons sustaining equality through their contributions, perhaps generalizing from their own enthusiasm for work (which in Morris’s case, at least, was both interesting and lucrative). Exactly how much people contributed compared to what they received was, as the liberal Will Kymlicka quotes Tawney, a mere ‘detail of the countinghouse.’39 It did not occur to these thinkers that self-reliance might atrophy in a society that provides unconditional income, and that responsible citizens could end up subsidising the costly ways of life of irresponsible citizens.

Putting the question baldly, are the lazy entitled to the fruits of the industrious? Egalitarians, resisting the Victorian idea of the ‘undeserving poor,’ might counter with another crude question: should the lazy starve? Marx’s slogan, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’ makes a clear separation between contribution and distribution. (It is worth noting that under Stalin, Marx’s heady utopianism was overturned with the ominous warning: ‘those who do not work do not eat.’) There is a conundrum here: it would be an unjust society that permitted its unproductive members to starve, and yet it would be an unjust society where members shirk a duty to contribute. Moreover, both societies cultivate impoverished relations of responsibility and reciprocity; neither admits that enabling the welfare of others is a duty of citizenship.

A well-known example of an argument for equality without duties of contribution is the ‘welfare for surfers’ credo of Phillippe Van Parijs. If we are to leave individuals autonomous in their choices, then we must not make social welfare contingent on making choices that are productive. Moreover, human diversity is such that it would be difficult to find a fair way of rewarding the different degrees of ‘disutility’ different kinds of work impose on individuals.40 Thus Van Parijs bites the bullet: lazy surfer though he may and always will be, the shirker is entitled to a social minimum. Van Parijs makes no demands of the lazy, but it can be argued he is demanding of the hardworking;41 under-contributors can only be looked after if there are willing over-contributors. The upshot may be political disaster, but it also may be unfair. Moreover, an unconditional largesse that asks nothing of citizens also shows little respect for individuals’ capacity for self-discipline, responsibility and direction of their lives.42

One solution favoured by liberals is to modify Rawls’s theory of distribution in order to take into account considerations of desert and responsibility. Rawls sought to mitigate the position of the worst off, and though his task presupposes fair equality of opportunity, it does not set any conditions for the amelioration of disadvantage. Ronald Dworkin, in contrast, argues that though a hierarchy of reward is not justified if it is the outcome of talents for which people cannot be responsible, it is justified if it is the outcome of freely chosen decisions.43 The influence of this argument is such that the majority of contemporary egalitarians, however diverse, have been dubbed ‘luck egalitarians’ for favouring a metric which somehow distinguishes between ‘option luck,’ features of one’s lot that are shaped by choice, and ‘brute luck,’ features of one’s lot that are immune to choice.44 Indeed, even the quasi-Marxist G.A. Cohen endorsed the luck egalitarian position.

This approach tends to assume that we can distinguish between outcomes that are chosen and those that are not. Yet prudent decision-making skills might be one of those innate capacities, like others of Rawls’s ‘natural lottery,’ for which one should not take (full) credit or blame.45 The brute luck-option luck distinction is hard to draw if economic condition can affect our choice-making capacity; bad choices can be a consequence of economic disadvantage, not the other way around. Why not blow one’s pay on a Saturday night to compensate for the drudgery of the week even if it leaves nothing for a rainy day? The familiar ‘culture of poverty,’ where poor people are acculturated into a set of fatalistic attitudes and practices, discourages people from taking steps to improve their lot.46 It seems harsh to condemn the imprudent to impoverishment, particularly if an initial bad decision can produce a class-divided society with lasting intergenerational effects.




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