Beyond what the author is doing in writing the book, what does this book set out to do?
I think it is reasonable to assume that the book will describe a theory of equality and of justice from a leftist point of view. We can assume that it will be critical of the status quo and of laissez-faire, and will be supportive of attempts to reform society to make it more equal and more fair, to more broadly distribute the goods of society, both material and immaterial (education and so on), and to weaken reaction’s hold on society as a whole. We can assume that it will embrace the liberal and left-wing critiques of the ten or twenty years preceding its writing, like John Kenneth Galbraith’s and Michael Harrington’s. We can assume that a young reader of left-wing or reformist sympathies will find in Spheres of Justice many good ideas that will help him or her understand their allies. (Conversely, we could assume that a reader opposed to liberal ideas will find information about what their opponents believe.)
And this is what we find. In this preface, Walzer offers a brief positive defense of equality, grounded in the opposition to domination, and especially to illegitimate domination. He sets up a contrast between equality and egalitarianism. The latter is absolutist, and he does not defend it. He doesn’t defend the idea that equality means one group imposing its values on others. He doesn’t defend the idea that one form of equality (say, of material things) is more important than others (of education and culture, perhaps). For these would themselves involve domination over others.
And he gives some examples that appear to be directed toward people on the left. He gives the example of a revolutionary or progressive movement that becomes, internally, less and less equal, itself. He provides a description of the process by which this happens (it has something in common with the social types Malcolm Gladwell would later popularize in books like The Tipping Point), as people find their natural level and positions are doled out according to talent and contribution. Presumably he intends to aim this part of the argument towards leftists and activists who’ve experienced that kind of thing already, and can fill in the details themselves, but the argument could equally apply to any group or place of business.
Walzer next alludes to cases—presumably the Soviet Union is intended—where equality, or rather egalitarianism (its extreme form), was imposed by force. The process he’d just described should have happened, in those cases, but didn’t; and the reason was that someone had prevented the natural process from working itself out, and done so using force—domination—against other people. The point here is that initial equality might not last, and that expecting it to last—or insisting that it must—is a bad idea.
He notes that the desire for equality is always a reaction to a particular form of domination that is felt to be illegitimate. This is important. Just as the present-day debate on inequality doesn’t propose absolute equality as a remedy, but objects to the extreme and unjustifiable inequality we in fact do have, every demand for equality is actually a demand that one, specific inequality be remedied, not a demand for immediate egalitarianism.
But then Walzer asserts that those who suffer under inequality and domination are overwhelmed with the negative emotions of envy and resentment. He goes on to say that they actually don’t really care about the actual inequality, but rather only really about finding some way—any way—to make themselves feel good.
He follows this by characterizing redistribution through taxation as, on its face, illegitimate, because it requires domination. People might not freely consent to pay taxes, but they are compelled to do so; and Walzer uses the same language of domination to describe this circumstance that he had used in describing injustices like slavery.
Both these statements are odd, coming from the left, and I don’t think my feeling that they’re odd is a simple matter of “presentism.” They would be less odd if they came from a mid-twentieth century anti-communist who was finding it difficult to follow his fellow leftists as their movement changed towards the end of the century. But this does not describe Michael Walzer.
One possibility is that the split between older anticommunists and the members of the New Left had not yet, by 1983 (when Spheres of Justice appeared), become absolute. Another is that Walzer felt a need to respond to the changes America was undergoing in the course of Reagan’s presidency. Another, related, is that he might have wished to develop an argument that would be persuasive to people who weren’t already on the left. The way in which Walzer was often placed within the communitarian movement of those years might support this. Just as, for Alasdair MacIntyre, the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy to the Catholic Christian tradition required an argument directed toward existing Catholic Christians, in the same way, for Walzer, perhaps, the introduction of left-liberal reforms into existing American society, in an enduring way, required an argument directed toward existing Americans.
The question does arise, in this case, why these communitarian arguments so frequently give the impression that they understand “existing” people as necessarily “conservative” people. They elide or ignore the questions raised by a multicultural, multiethnic society. They similarly ignore the questions raised, for their theories, by a modern or modernizing society or a predominantly bourgeois one. And in the case of Spheres of Justice, to assume that equality is undesirable, until proved otherwise, ignores the historical and constitutional foundations of the (existing) United States. It also remains to be seen what communitarianism can make of a situation in which different groups within a nation, or a region, have different ideas about the values (hierarchy, divine grace, education) that Walzer is going to discuss in further chapters.
Not long after Spheres of Justice came out, Walzer denied being a communitarian and declared himself a liberal instead. And maybe the problems of communitarianism won’t become issues in this book. But the question does remain what those examples are doing in a book about leftist ideas, and the question does remain how this book is to be read.
It is possible that again, the preface is essentially extraneous to the rest of the book. Or maybe the questions I asked in my previous post might be helpful here. Maybe Walzer is engaging in a kind of critical-theoretical analysis, rather than an ordinarily politically persuasive kind of argument at all. Or maybe his book is best understood as belonging to the continental-philosophical tradition, rather than the Anglo analytic-philosophical one that’s more familiar to many American readers today (or at least to readers my age). I’d guess Walzer is more likely to recognize himself as a pragmatist than a “continental. Then again, Richard Rorty has argued that pragmatism and some continental poststructuralism are a lot alike.
Be that as it may, so far it seems to me that communitarianism shares, with some forms of pragmatism (like that of Stanley Fish), a difficulty in conceptualizing the possibility that the substantive positions it takes are wrong. It may offer conceptual space for a certain amount of theoretical, “pie in the sky” theorizing about ideals (of the kind Walzer here deplores), but omits a clear way of connecting any criticism with “on the ground” reality. Instead, this sort of pragmatist, or communitarian, tends to defer substantive discussions to other people, and to defer questions about when and how to criticize those people to another time and place. The pragmatist would normally defer those discussions to professionals, on the one hand, and people directly affected by their outcome, on the other, and might have no strong opinion as to which was consulted when, except to insist that ivory-tower philosophy should have no input into them. The communitarian, on the other hand, might be able to say little or nothing in criticism of a group’s communal beliefs, especially if the group is not one to which he, himself, belongs.