Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality by Michael Walzer. Basic Books, 345 pp., $19.95.

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In a famous letter of 1843 Marx warned socialists against “confronting the world as doctrinaires with a new principle: ‘Here is the truth, bow down before it!’ ” He insisted that Socialists’ proper business is a “ruthless criticism of everything existing.”

But as Marx knew, all criticism presupposes a vision of how things should be. And in a less often quoted part of the same letter, he hinted at the source of the socialist vision: “It will [become clear] that the world has long been dreaming of something that it can acquire only if it be comes conscious of it…that it is not a matter of drawing a great dividing line between past and future, but of fulfilling the aspirations of the past…that human kind begins no new work, but consciously accomplishes its old work.”

Political philosopher and “Dissent” co-editor Michael Walzer takes up this hint in “Spheres of Justice”. He tries to show that our common intuitions about justice and equality (by “our” he means the ones current in contemporary American political culture) can yield radical conclusions: “A society of equals… is a practical possibility, here and now.”

Political philosophers have typically tried to get at the meaning of justice by deducing some universal set of “natural rights” from some abstract version of “human nature.” Walzer’s method is different. For him, “justice” is the way a society’s values fit with its practices. In justice is a lack of fit—a violation by some people of the culture’s common understanding of what power, money, education, leisure—or any other social good is really for. And popular protest, he argues, has usually appealed to such common traditional under standings, and is likely to do so in the future.

What is equality?

What does equality mean in contemporary American culture? Some friends (and most enemies) of equality have answered that it can only mean what Walzer labels “simple equality”: roughly the same amount of everything for everyone. In other words, equal incomes and working hours, the rotation of positions, the devaluation of educational credentials and professional “expertise,” the abolition of honors, and so on.

Assuming that this is a possible state of affairs, is it a desirable one? Ideally, social goods in our culture tend to be distributed, Walzer argues, according to some “internal principle”: honor according to merit; rewarding work to those who can do that work best; publicly funded leisure time to those who can use it to create or discover beautiful things; political power to those whose arguments are most persuasive; and (discretionary) money to those who can get it through market exchanges.

But it’s obvious that our abilities—to do certain sorts of work, to persuade our fellow citizens or to make money—vary greatly. Achieving “simple equality” would require continuous interference with spontaneous, organic distribution processes. And that sort of interference can be accomplished only by a powerful central authority. If equality means “simple equality,” then, concludes Walzer, the conservatives are right: freedom and equality are incompatible.

But Walzer claims simple equality is not really what is implied by this ideal. The ideal of equality implies “a society where no social good serves or can serve as a means of domination.” And this means that distributions of social goods should be autonomous: that preeminence in one sphere should not translate into preeminence in other, unrelated spheres. Historically, this ideal has been violated in many ways. Noble birth, religious rank, ethnic membership, maleness— these attributes have, in various societies, conferred advantages In the distribution of wealth, honor, office, political power, leisure, education and authority. And that, according to Walzer, is the essence of domination, the root form of inequality.

Capital and domination.

In our own society, the characteristic means of domination is the ownership of capital. Capital translates, directly or indirectly, into the possession of social goods—education, leisure, political power, medical care, etc.— which ought to be distributed on very different principles. The collective determination of what each social good really means to us and therefore of how it ought to be distributed among us—this is what Walzer calls “the regime of complex equality.”

Walzer’s reading of American political culture leads him to expect (or at least to hope) that the final shape of that collective determination will be “a decentralized democratic socialism.” By this he means “a strong welfare state run, in part at least, by local and amateur officials; a constrained market; an open and de mystified civil service; independent public schools; the sharing of hard work and free time; the protection of religious and familial life; a system of public honoring and dishonoring free from all considerations of rank or class; workers’ control of companies and factories; a politics of par ties; movements, meetings and public debate.”

Walzer’s fundamental argument is that “complex equality” is what contemporary Americans actually mean by “justice” and much of “Spheres of Justice” is devoted to deriving a social agenda from that principle. The book includes a vigorous defense of the citizenship rights of “guest workers”; an elegant proof that workers’ control and economic democracy stand on exactly the same philosophical footing as citizens’ control and political democracy; a sensitive discussion of how unpleasant work should be socially shared; and some obliquely phrased reservations about affirmative action. The latter have drawn sharp criticism from both liberals (e.g., Ronald Dworkin) and socialists (e.g., Elizabeth Fox-Genovese), but Walzer’s position—that the illegitimate link between office and unequal income or power should be consistently challenged, and that reparations should be made directly to historically disadvantaged groups—is more consistent and in fact more radical than that of his critics.

The main problem with “Spheres of Justice” is its lack of specificity. Walzer’s descriptions of how complex equality might actually be implemented in an advanced industrial society are thin. Oddly, he has chosen most of his examples of inequality and injustice from remote periods and places. This is often entertaining, but it forfeits the urgency and conviction that contemporary examples might produce.

Even more seriously, the book’s high level of generality allows Walzer to evade a crucial difficulty: the question of whether market relations can coexist with cooperative, participatory economic relations. This question is central to much of the recent American socialist theory (for example, work by Carmen Sirianni and by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel). It deserves much more attention than it receives from Walzer.

Philosophers’ quarrel.

The overly abstract character of “Spheres of Justice” may be a result of its origin, which is a quarrel among philosophers. During the early ‘70s, Walzer and Robert Nozick taught a course at Harvard entitled “Capitalism and Socialism.” They became close friends and intellectual antagonists. In 1974 Nozick published “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”, an attack on socialist morality and a defense of competitive individualism, which became the most influential work of political philosophy in the last decade. Whatever Nozick’s intentions, the book legitimated the resurgent politics of greed. Walzer has written “Spheres of Justice” as an answer to “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”. It is a crushingly effective answer, but it is not clear that anyone except other academic philosophers will notice.

As one of the finest specimens of recent political philosophy, “Spheres of Justice” prompts the question: is philosophy of any use? Wittgenstein, the greatest 20th-century philosopher, harbored doubts all his life and finally concluded that the main use of philosophy was as a kind of therapy for the compulsion to “philosophize.” Those afflicted with that compulsion will be grateful for Walzer’s carefully argued, gracefully written book. But even those who are free of it may discover, as they try to articulate their own visions of justice and equality, that Walzer’s attempt, for all its limitations, has helped them find their voice.


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George Scialabba