Introduction to Contemporary Political Theory


Colin Farrelly

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part One: Contemporary Liberal Theory

    Part Two: Alternative Traditions

  • Copyright

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    For Lori. Words cannot express my depth of gratitude.


    What is ‘Political Theory’?

    I suppose the obvious place to begin a textbook entitled An Introduction to Contemporary Political Theory is to stipulate what I take to count as ‘contemporary’ and, more importantly, what counts as ‘political theory’. This is not as easy as it sounds. Let me begin with the second and more difficult of these two questions – that of defining what political theory is. I am hesitant to stipulate a concise, all-encompassing definition; any such definition is bound to alienate someone and thus result in the charge that my definition is not inclusive. There is no consensus among political theorists as to what, exactly, constitutes the discipline. When one surveys the journals in political theory and the books written by those who call themselves ‘political theorists’ one sees a variety of topics being addressed. These range from the history of political thought to analyses of political concepts like freedom, equality and democracy. Topics from such diverse traditions as feminism, socialism, anarchism and liberalism all fall under the general rubric of ‘political theory’. The fact that political theory is thriving as a discipline makes it all the more difficult to provide an inclusive definition of the discipline. The areas of enquiry that political theorists explore are constantly changing, and with this, our understanding of what qualifies as political theory.

    However, having said that, I think it is accurate to say that what unites these diverse traditions under the rubric of ‘political theory’ is their concern for how we ought, collectively, to live together. More than forty years ago John Plamenatz described political theory as the ‘systematic thinking about the purposes of government’ (Plamenatz, 1960: 37) and I think this definition is just as apt today as it was then. I doubt a more inclusive definition could be constructed that would cover the vast array of concerns which contemporary political theorists have.

    Political theory is thus a normative discipline, it is primarily concerned with how things ought to be as opposed to how things actually are. Of course this does not mean that theorists should not take seriously the realities of the current social and political arrangements. This is essential as one cannot determine what we should be aspiring towards if one does not know where we currently are and thus what the pros and cons of the current arrangement are. But political theorists do not engage in the descriptive or explanatory project that the political scientist engages in. The political scientist tackles questions like How is the American political system different from that of other countries?, or Who actually wields political power in America? Whereas the political theorist will ask Who should wield political power in society and what ideals, principles and institutional arrangements best secure the diverse demands of justice? A diverse range of political arrangements can be, and have been, defended by reference to values such as justice, freedom, equality and democracy. The job of the political theorist is to bring some precision to these vague and contested concepts so that one can provide convincing arguments for the particular social arrangements they believe we should be aspiring towards. Ideas are powerful things, they exert great influence on the real world and help determine the fate of the lives of billions of people. So the political theorist has a very important role to play, one that has an influence on the real world of politics.

    This textbook focuses exclusively on debates in contemporary political theory. Deciding on which topics and theorists to address in this book was not easy. I focus primarily on the central theories and debates of the past thirty years. The publication of John Rawls's A Theory of Justice marked a turning point in political theory and this textbook seeks to cover the main positions and issues that have been central to political theory since the publication of Rawls's influential book. That is not to say that articles and books written prior to the publication of A Theory of Justice are unimportant or outdated. Such an inference would clearly be mistaken. But when writing a textbook on contemporary theories and issues one must draw a line somewhere and I think it is fair to say that the post-A Theory of Justice line is the most practical one to impose.

    The Design of the Book

    My approach to designing this textbook has been inspired by three concerns I believe instructors have when they put together a course in political theory. Firstly, they want to expose students to the main theoretical traditions, which will allow them to explore the diverse approaches theorists take to the issue of how society should be arranged. I believe this book accomplishes this. It covers the main positions in contemporary political theory – liberalism, communitarianism, multiculturalism, deliberative democracy and feminism. Rather than discuss and analyse these different theoretical positions in a very general and abstract form, I have sought instead to address specific theories and theorists in some detail. Thus I feel it is important to stress that the various labels one encounters in political theory, such as ‘liberalism’, ‘communitarianism’ and ‘feminism’, are just that – they are labels. They serve a pedagogical purpose but they should not be the main preoccupation. To design a textbook around contrived stipulated definitions of ‘liberalism’, ‘multiculturalism’, etc. would result in a book that not only grossly simplified contemporary debates but, I believe, such a book would be pretty boring to read (and write!). Instead of doing this, I often reinforce how these various traditions complement each other and point out, where appropriate, the common ground shared between alleged theoretical ‘opponents’ as well as the areas of genuine disagreement. Many liberals are deliberative democrats, for example, and many feminists are multiculturalists. So students should take the various ‘isms’ of the chapters with a pinch of salt and recognize that the complexities of contemporary political theory run much deeper than the simple category schema conveyed in the table of contents of this book.

    The second concern behind the design of this book is that it is important for students (and instructors!) to develop the critical skills necessary to assess the different arguments theorists advance and to decide for themselves which of these positions they find most promising or problematic. I have sought to do this by incorporating boxed-text exercises in each chapter to help stimulate class discussion and further study on the issues addressed. I have also tried to give a ‘fair hearing’ to each of the positions covered in this book, so that students can decide for themselves what they think of the different arguments.

    Thirdly, I believe that the most effective way of motivating students to engage in these abstract theoretical debates is to emphasize their practical significance. Political theorists study what they study because they believe the answers to the questions they examine have an important impact of what goes on in the real world. This book is inspired by this view of political theory. I believe theory does, and ought to, inform public policy and public debate in general and thus political theorists have an important contribution to make to a wide variety of practical issues. From the issues of global justice and welfare reform to minority rights and gender quotas for political representatives, this book links theoretical debates to practical issues of concern so that students see why political theory is important.

    Part One of the book focuses on contemporary liberal theory. I know that some will have reservations about the extensive treatment liberalism receives here but let me attempt to alleviate these concerns. Firstly, as I mentioned above, I believe that the division of political theory into various ‘isms’ is largely artificial. That is, many theorists who are labelled ‘communitarians’ or ‘feminists’ also share many of the same commitments that liberals have, and vice versa. So the fact that I spend four chapters on liberalism does not mean that I think liberalism is four times as important as the positions covered in the second part of the book. Given that liberalism is the main target of criticism for the four traditions examined in Part Two, one actually gains a better understanding and appreciation of those arguments only after one is familiar with the different liberal theories they are critical of. So by spending half of the book on four liberal theories of justice one is covering the background necessary for introducing communitarianism, multicultural-ism, deliberative democracy and feminism. Once one has examined the different principles of justice liberals have advocated (for example, the difference principle, minimax relative concession, etc.) one can better appreciate the claims that liberalism fails to take seriously the importance of community, cultural membership and democracy; or that the distributive paradigm is ill-equipped to eliminate the oppression of women.

    Furthermore, the inclusion of the four liberal theories of justice in Part One is useful because it permits one to cover some of the most important debates in contemporary political theory. By focusing on these four theories, I was able to address methodological issues (for example, the contrast between Rawls's method of reflective equilibrium and Gauthier's foundationalism) as well as effectively bring out the practical relevance of the abstract theoretical debates. A diverse range of applied topics are covered in the first part of the textbook, ranging from civil disobedience and global justice to the welfare state and campaign expenditures.

    Many more applied topics are addressed in Part Two. For example, in the chapter on communitarianism the practical significance of the communitarian critique is illustrated by considering the issues of state neutrality and nationalism. In Chapter 6 we examine multiculturalist arguments for national minority rights and polyethnic rights. The practical significance of deliberative democracy is brought out by linking it with other themes addressed in the textbook, such as constitutionalism, and by considering the proposal for creating a new national holiday called Deliberation Day. And finally, in the chapter on feminism, we examine the practical significance of feminist internationalism, the feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ as well as consider the argument for gender quotas for political representatives.

    Writing this book has been a very enlightening experience. Writing a textbook forces one to emerge from their own entrenched theoretical perspective and to give an impartial and fair presentation of the positions that they might, in their other research, have attacked vigorously. I am happy to admit that working on this book has had a profound impact on my own political convictions. I am now much more critical of the theoretical tradition I align myself with and I have a much greater appreciation of the sophistication and insights of those whom I believed were my opponents. I suspect it is too much to hope that my readership will undergo a similar transformation but I do hope the textbook raises new questions for them to consider, presents familiar arguments in a new and interesting light and encourages them to engage in issues and traditions they perhaps have tended to ignore.

    Taking on a project like this is a laborious task and I could not have written this book without the support of a number of people. I am grateful to the referees from Sage, who provided useful comments on both the initial designs of the book and on some of the chapters. I owe a special debt of gratitude to the referee who suggested that I also do Contemporary Political Theory: A Reader (as a companion volume to this textbook). Lucy Robinson and David Mainwaring from Sage have given me unwavering support and enthusiasm on both the textbook and the Reader and I am very grateful for this. Students on my courses at both the Universities of Birmingham and Manchester utilized drafts of some of the chapters of the textbook and I received useful feedback from them. I also benefited from the political theory reading groups I participated in at the Universities of Birmingham and Manchester, which helped me to stay abreast of the recent literature. I am particularly grateful to Hillel Steiner and Stephen De Wijze for many ‘lively’ and memorable debates about justice and the family that helped motivate me to get through the final stages of this book.

    I also owe a special debt of gratitude to my family. I wish to thank my parents for their support over the years. During the time I worked on this book my two sons, Connor and Dylan, were born. Balancing the demands of work and family has proved to be an enormous challenge, a challenge that I could not even entertain tackling if it were not for the support of my wife, Lori, to whom this book is dedicated. Without her unfailing support not one word of it would have been written.

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