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positions: east asia cultures critique 13.2 (2005) 329-378

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Peripheral Justice:

The Marxist Tradition of Public Hegemony and Its Implications in the Age of Globalization

The Issue: Culture and Peripheral Justice

How do we explain the intriguing fact that precisely at the moment when the West scores a decisive victory over all political and economic alternatives, when capitalism is universally accepted as the only feasible way to rationally organize a modern economy, and when third-world industrialization tears down the traditional north-south structure marking the beginning of an age of capitalist globalization, there has emerged across non-Western societies an ever more powerful anti-Western backlash and an ever stronger aspiration for cultural assertiveness? To address these crucial issues, it will be necessary to take a step back and examine how the relationship of culture and modern transformation has become a dominant concern in social analysis. [End Page 329]

The Paradox of Peripheral Capitalism

The rise of liberal modernity in western Europe and North America more than two hundred years ago, as Ernest Laclau and Chantel Mouffe have forcefully put it, marked a momentous mutation in the social imagination of Western societies: the logic of equivalence displaced the logic of differentiation and imposed itself as a fundamental nodal point in the construction of the social. In the matrix of the new social imaginary, subordination was constructed as oppression. This effectively delegitimated older, hierarchic and inequalitarian views of social organization.1

The Kantian tradition conceptualizes this radical break as the replacement of the primacy of the good life by the primacy of justice. No social order can persist without appearing (i.e., being perceived by people in it) to be just. Indeed, our intuitive conviction that each person should be rendered his or her due is so fundamental now that it forecloses any possibility that sacrifices imposed on a few might accrue advantages that many, even society as a whole, could enjoy or benefit from collectively.2 However, this does not mean that every social order is equally just or should even be considered as just. In traditional or illiberal societies, the notion of justice presupposes that the basic principles of justice are derived from what Hegel termed Sittlichkeit, that is, the customs, norms, and expectations inherent in the conception of the good life of a given society. According to John Rawls, it is in this relationship between justice and the basic structure for society that the most distinctive feature of liberal society can be discerned. What is characteristic of liberal democracy is precisely its claim to social justice, or more specifically, the claim that "the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society" per se.3 Thus, for the first time in human history, there emerged a political-social order within which each person possesses an initial position of unconditional equality and any unequal distribution of social advantages among individuals is made on the basis of principles and procedures that equal and rational persons would accept and regard as fair and just.

This new structure is liberal modernity. The emancipatory implications of liberal modernity help explain why both classical liberalism and classical Marxism have shared a common belief in the effectiveness of capitalism in raising growth, alleviating poverty, and promoting equality and civil liberties everywhere, including the third world.4 [End Page 330]

However, what these classical paradigms did not anticipate and certainly cannot explain is what Tom Nairn termed "the most brutally and hopelessly material side" of modern world history—the persistent uneven development between Western core countries and the peripheral world.5 Since the nineteenth century, social analysts have been haunted by this puzzling fact: that the imposition of basic ideas and institutions of liberal modernity (individualism, constitutionalism, human rights, free markets, the rule of law), which presumably has contributed to the vitality and prosperity of the advanced capitalist centers in the West, has produced in the peripheral world exactly the opposite effects, a direct descent into social decay and economic stagnation.6...


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