By Uditha Devapriya –
Charles Mills passed away last week. A prolific writer on African-American and Marxist philosophy, Mills was the author of six books, including the only one of his I read cover to cover, The Racial Contract. Though he never joined the academic mainstream like most of his colleagues and contemporaries, he was never outside it either. By the mid-2010s, when he became better established among intellectual circles, his work had gone beyond those circles. His reputation preceded him everywhere, so much so that it remains impossible to talk about black history and philosophy without summoning his name.
Though it was my interest in anthropology that took me to him years ago, his own interests spread far and wide. Very few thinkers deserved comparisons with him: an assessment one can come to with even a cursory perusal of his magnum opus, now considered a classic work of African-American and Marxist scholarship, The Racial Contract.
What is profoundly interesting, and unsettling, about The Racial Contract is that it reveals not a hidden truth, but a simple one. In its first few pages Mills asserted, not a little boldly, that “[p]hilosophy… is one of the ‘whitest’ of the humanities.” Yet to say this even in 1997, when the book came out, was not to make a revelation that had evaded interpretation over the better part of recorded history. Mills was not attempting to decode a Rosetta Stone of Western philosophy. His intentions were far more modest: he wanted to find out why that philosophy, lauded for its universal appeal, could gloss over “debates over multiculturalism, canon reform, and ethnic diversity” within and outside academic circuits. Or to put it simply, why there had not been “alternative conceptualisations” of moral and political theory which acknowledged the presence of non-white communities.
This was hardly the first such critique of Western philosophy, or even of Western liberalism. C. B. Macpherson had authored an erudite essay and book on liberal philosophy more than 30 years before Mills would. A more recent intervention, Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History, laid bare the hypocrisies and illusions of Western liberalism more candidly than did either Macpherson or Mills. Yet being very much a product of his background, Mills was better suited for the task of expounding on this subject; whereas Macpherson explored the class dynamics underlying post-16th century Western liberalism (he called it “possessive individualism”), Mills focused more on its racial dimensions.
Though Mills approaches his theme from a conceptual framework, there are times when he incorporates other perspectives in the interests of the wider aims of his text. He could have expected to do no less with a book that attempted to tear apart, and dissect, the intellectual foundations of Western civilisation. He himself put it best: his aim, he contends, was to build a bridge between the worlds of abstract philosophy and colonial subjugation.
What we can say without simplifying history is that these two worlds formed the epicentre of the milieu that sired the natural philosophers of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. If the Renaissance began with Petrarch and ended with Descartes, as Garrett Mattingly once put it, natural philosophy, which had its antecedents in Augustine and Aquinas, gained a second lease of life under Hobbes. Revived by Locke, it was radically reformulated by Rousseau. It is this trinity of social contractarians which Mills delves into in his essay. The title of his work is a simple, but symbolic, inversion of their moral philosophy, a point Mills clarifies early on: in contrast to the “Social Contract”, the “Racial Contract” is a reference to the “actual genesis” of the world that Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau inhabited.
What interests me most about Mills’s work is his claim that none of these issues can be separated from each other. Indeed, he cautions against separating them at all. For him, as for most other critics of Western philosophy, the Social Contract which Hobbes highlighted and Locke and Rousseau reformulated actually concealed a painful historical reality: white supremacy. Hence, in contrast to the distinction between “natural” and “civil/political” man it glosses over, the Racial Contract that underlies the Social Contract draws a line between “white” and “non-white” groups. As per its logic, the creation of political society calls for the subordination of all non-white groups to a white hegemony.
In Locke’s argument, “natural man” becomes “civilised” through participation in the political process. In Mills’s formulation, this thesis is qualified: “natural man” becomes part of society by way of not just participation, but exclusion. This is not quite as complex an argument as you may think: what Mills suggests here is that Locke’s general type of “natural men” is very much specific, signifying white, bourgeois, male populations. Indeed, as he argues, “whether by law or custom… the status of whites and non-whites is clearly demarcated” in the polity, state, and judicial system established by the Racial Contract. When you realise that blacks in the US won the right to vote 275 years after John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, you see how the most abstract ideals can camouflage the most insidious bigotry.
Mills next draws a distinction between what he calls the “moral contract” and the “political contract”, and suggests two ways of viewing relations between them. In the first, which is Lockean and Kantian, the moral contract represents a pre-existing objectivist morality and constraints the contents of the political contract. Hence, a country’s legal code is based on a system of moral ethics. In the second, which is Hobbesian, the political contract establishes the moral code: thus for Hobbes, morality is no more and no less than a code enabling us to pursue a set of rational interests which are in harmony with those of others.
For most conventional philosophers, it has become fashionable to distinguish between these two ways of framing the dialectic between politics and morality by drawing a fine line between popular sovereigntists (Locke and Kant) on the one hand and state sovereigntists (Hobbes) on the other. In other words, between those who claim the people’s right to rebel against unjust or tyrannical regimes and those who contend for the State’s right to mediate between competing rights and obligations in the interests of stability.
For Mills, however, such abstract distinctions actually belie what binds them together: as he notes bluntly, “[t]he Racial Contract can accommodate both versions.”
The implications of this argument should not be lost on anyone. What it means is that post-16th century Western philosophy would not have developed in the absence of slavery and colonialism. A general case for the rights of indigenous tribes in the face of subjugation by Spanish conquistadors had been made by Vitoria a century before Locke. Yet even Vitoria’s concern with the rights of native communities had been framed within a larger framework in which colonialism was justified as a pursuit of a greater good. Even so, in this earlier era, the laws of God had been deployed to justify and deplore the excesses of colonial conquest. In the post-16th century conjuncture, on the other hand, we come across a secularisation of the ideals of contractarianism. With the disappearance of an all-knowing, all-ordaining deity, divine sanction gives way to the rights of some men over all others.
While Vitoria could deny that colonisers had rights of pre-emption over native communities, then, Locke could as easily justify such rights on the basis that his theory of property rights did not apply to hunter-gatherer societies. Of course, Locke’s criterion was more restrictive than his reading of slavery would suggest. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, for instance, he finds reasons for excluding from his moral universe not just atheists, but also Catholics. For a philosopher almost unanimously considered a radical, his notions of freedom, equality, and toleration seem to have applied to only Protestant dissenters. Yet his criterion, intolerant as it was of other religious sects, excluded from all considerations the rights of slaves. There is, admittedly, one passage where he condemns slavery as “so vile and miserable an estate of man”. However, when read in full, it becomes clear that he’s referring not to African people, but to English men: slavery is vile, yes, but white people shall never suffer it.
How are we to consider these arguments? First and foremost, as Mills suggests, it behoves us to come up with a framework that can pose as an alternative to the Hobbesian-Lockean-Kantian worldview. If the writings of Sri Lanka’s liberal elite are anything to go by, however, it’s clear that they have failed to place that worldview in its proper context.
In short, these commentators have failed to historicise what needs to be historicised. This is why one economist, allied with the neoliberal right, can compare the Buddha’s injunctions against restraints with Locke’s advocacy of individual liberty, while another writer can make a case against anti-terror legislation by summoning Locke. Here we need only recall Samuel Johnson’s snide reference to the latter as a “driver of negroes” to understand that what our liberals have abandoned is a sense of historic proportion. Perhaps Mills offered us the best solution for and way out of this “studied ignorance”: as long as we do not tear up the Racial Contract, “justice will continue to be restricted to ‘just us’.” This is to be deplored, but more crucially, to be avoided. The way forward lies in acknowledging that point.
*The writer can be reached at email@example.com