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Jeffrey Edward Green, The Shadow of Unfairness

Jeffrey Edward Green, The Shadow of Unfairness: a Plebeian Theory of Liberal Democracy, OUP, 2019 (hardback 2016), pp. xi + 252.

As a young adult my principal activities were the learning and teaching of political philosophy. The subject had been prominently declared “dead”, but was able to continue in the forms of biography and autopsy. Then came John Rawls A Theory of Justice (1971). I abandoned the subject, but it revived as a kind of Rawlsian theology.

Green’s book is located securely within this genre. The first two footnotes in the text proper are to Rawls and Habermas and state the discourse as a concern with the ideal of “a free and equal society” – the phrase is from Rawls, but it is virtually identical with that used by Habermas. Immediately, I must confess that my lip curls and I assume an exercise in squaring circles and avoiding issues. Free and equal? As an individual you need a private income to be meaningfully free and collectively the freedom which allows excellence seems to thrive best under feudal power: think Vienna 1900 and compare with the squalid little republics which replaced Hapsburg rule. Green freely concedes that private property and the family are the chief obstacles to equality and most people would argue that they are also the necessary conditions of liberty.

To deal with this we have plebeianism, a development from a reflection on the late Roman Republic. In both that society and ours the majority class have only a small share of wealth and power. But ” . . . with plebeianism the differentiation between the Few and the Many is meant to problematize, regulate and contest – and not merely instantiate – the superior power of the superrich”. This obviously distinguishes plebeianism from socialism and one of its clearest prescriptions is the greater regulation of the very rich. ( I admit to being tempted by greater regulation for the Trumps and Mike Ashley, but would rather leave Bill Gates and the Duke of Northumberland to get on with it.)

The plebeian life thus prescribed is one of expressing resentments and demanding regulations. That doesn’t sound much fun, but Green has the sense (and the scholarship) to complement it with a development of Epicureanism in his final chapter. This is not, obviously, as anti-political as much of the classical version, but it does insist on the propriety of a private sphere of life. We must learn “to care and not care” (the phrase is T.S.Eliot’s) and cultivate for ourselves a world of friends, gardens (literal and metaphorical) and, bless him, drink. The argument is a necessary addition, but also stands alone.

However, I do find it extremely irritating to see how this intellectual tradition treats the concept of justice/fairness. To return to Rome, the legal definition of justice was suum cuique, to each his desert. But we can easily construct theories of what we deserve in a myriad of contradictory ways, basing it on theories of reward, of equality or of natural rights – or, of course, we could base claims, as we normally do, on the particular conventions and obligations formed in a given context. Thus justice is a concept which works well enough in well-defined systems of rules, but social justice only denotes an area of essential and irresoluble contest. It is jolly unfair that some people have much more money than others, but it is also jolly unfair – and in a much more common sense – to take people’s money off them if they have acquired it within existing rules. The intellectual tradition which this book embraces assumes that there are knowable and universal forms of justice derived from abstractions. Which is why I call it Rawlsian theology rather than philosophy.

Lincoln Allison April 2019

(Published in Times Higher Education in 2019.)