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  • An Emancipatory Interpretation of Property-Owning Democracy:Rawls, Wright, Sen, and Politics
  • Thad Williamson (bio)

In Justice as Fairness, John Rawls clearly poses "property-owning democracy" as an alternative to capitalism.1 But because Rawls never followed through with a full-blown account of the political and economic institutions of a property-owning democracy, there has been some disagreement among subsequent commentators about whether the idea of distributing wealth and capital broadly is to be understood as a system distinct from social democratic modalities of capitalism, or alternatively as a reform strategy within what Rawls terms "welfare state capitalism." Complicating this question is the fact that as a practical matter, movement towards creating a property-owning democracy, even if motivated by the desire to create a systemic alternative to capitalism, almost certainly must begin in large measure precisely as a reform strategy within existing forms of welfare state capitalism (be it the neoliberal Anglo-American model or more social democratic continental versions).

In this essay, I explore that question by relating it to two alternative ways of thinking about how to build a just (or "more just") society: the "emancipatory social science" proposed by neo-Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright in his recent book Envisioning Real Utopias and the "comparative" framework for understanding the "idea of justice" proposed by Amartya Sen.2 At first glance, these approaches seem like starkly different ways of thinking about what justice requires, and in this essay I will argue that Sen's comparative approach, taken alone, runs the risk of badly obscuring fundamental issues of power and control over capital—precisely the issues Rawls [End Page 74] insisted on raising in his talk of property-owning democracy. Nonetheless, there is an important role for the comparative approach to play in thinking about how to advance justice, particularly in the international context—just so long as it is not confused for the whole of justice. In the closing section, I relate Rawls's "realist utopianism" to the political orientation of the recent Occupy Wall Street movement, arguing that the Rawlsian framework can both help make sense of the movement and also offer it a positive direction looking forward.

Emancipatory Social Science

I begin with a brief account of Wright's Envisioning Real Utopias. Wright's book is widely interpreted as an effort to re-cast Marxism for the twenty-first century, but that description suggests a sectarianism of vision that is no part of Wright's project. He is simply very honestly asking if there is a way forward to advance strong egalitarian ideas given the collapse of older ideas about statist socialism and given the undesirable features of capitalism.

I begin with Wright's framing idea: the idea of an "emancipatory social science." There are two possible meanings of this term. One is the idea of conducting social science research that is motivated by the aim of contributing to "emancipation"—i.e., the expansion of human freedom and the liberation of suffering persons from oppression. Research intending to document income inequalities, the persistence of racial stereotypes, and many other features of the social world could be considered "emancipatory social science" on this interpretation. Research of this kind can contribute to the critique of the existing social order. Wright certainly marshals evidence of this kind in his own recently published critique of American society:3 documenting basic sociological facts about contemporary society and the causal processes that generate those facts is essential work. To "emancipate" ourselves, we must understand how society functions, and this is an ongoing task.

The second possible meaning of "emancipatory social science" is that it refers to conducting a social science of emancipation. I take this to mean [End Page 75] disciplined thinking about possible future alternative trajectories, and specifically about the possibility of developing alternatives to existing forms of capitalism. The ideas that quasi-scientific, rigorous thinking about what social futures are available to us is possible, and that such thinking can make a positive contribution to how the future actually unfolds, are each quite bold claims in themselves. Hence most of this paper will be concerned with "emancipatory social science" in this second sense.

How then can we think...


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