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30 November 2021

Reimagining political philosophy: on Charles Mills

Charles Mills, who died earlier this year, was a model for a political philosophy engaged with subjects the discipline had systematically ignored, first among them race and racism.

By Sophie Smith

Central to any future history of contemporary political philosophy will be Charles Mills, who died on 20 September this year, just 70 years old. Mills wasn’t a household name – few living philosophers are – but for legions of scholars across generations and academic disciplines, he was a model for how political philosophy might speak squarely to the realities of injustice and oppression.

Born in London and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, Mills’s academic career began with a BSc in physics at the University of the West Indies in 1971, and ended with a distinguished professorship in philosophy at the City University of New York. Over three decades, he pushed academic philosophy to reckon with subjects it had systematically ignored, first among them race and racism. He breathed new theoretical life into ideas drawn from a longer tradition of black political thought, such as “white ignorance”, and he offered new concepts, like the “racial contract”, which made it possible to analyse real-world phenomena – such as the persistence of white supremacy under liberalism – that had previously escaped philosophical scrutiny. He was a pioneer of the critical philosophy of race, a subtle commentator on Marxism, and among liberalism’s most insightful, though ultimately not unfriendly, critics. At the end of his life he was fleshing out a theory he called “black radical liberalism”.

Mills’s death earlier this year occasioned an outpouring of stories from readers whose lives and careers he touched, both those who knew him, and those who had only read him. While Mills’s contributions were recognised by some – not enough – of the discipline’s top honours, his reputation derived almost entirely from the page. If you hadn’t encountered his inventive and morally penetrating writings, Mills would come across as an unassuming guy in a denim jacket and well-worn trainers: softly spoken, with good jokes.

In obituaries across multiple outlets, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, Mills was acknowledged as a titan, quietly towering above the rest. Particularly moving were the tributes of those black philosophers – who, as Mills often reminded readers, still make up only around 1 per cent of the profession – for whom Mills was an inexhaustible source of good-humoured support.

Discussions of Mills often focus, understandably, on the interventions for which he is best known, especially those found in and following his trailblazing 1997 book The Racial Contract (which sold over 50,000 copies). There remains much left to say about his earlier work, not all of which is included in collections of his essays. It is here we see the full force of Mills’s prescience: for just how very long he was telling philosophers what they needed to hear.

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One of Mills’s earliest and least-known essays was published in 1988, just after he had taken up his first academic job at the University of Oklahoma. Its topic might seem distant from the concerns of a political philosopher: popular spy stories set in Jamaica between 1955-69.

In “Red Peril to the Green Island: The ‘Communist Threat’ to Jamaica in Genre Fiction, 1955-1969”, Mills showed what an analysis of fiction and other “artefacts of popular culture” could reveal to someone seeking to understand the ideological underpinnings of anti-left sentiment. The novels that concerned Mills, such as Ian Fleming’s Dr No, dramatised Jamaica’s rescue – if not by a white Westerner, then by a Jamaican complicit with the neocolonial state – from a “communist menace”.

The relevant political background to these books, Mills said, was Jamaica’s post-war industrialisation and rampant socioeconomic inequality. (Mills was, from the start, committed to a vision of political philosophy in close conversation not only with literature but also with history and the social sciences.) Independence in 1962 came at a moment when the left had little influence on Jamaican party politics: power alternated between the conservative Jamaica Labour Party and the People’s National Party which, after the expulsion of Marxist members a decade before, had taken an increasingly centrist course. Given an entrenched colourism, left opposition to class privilege tended to come in the form of black nationalism, Garveyism or the later Rastafari and Black Power movements. Popular spy fiction, with its racialised caricatures of hypocritical, self-serving communists, not only made any “balanced assessment” of Marxist-inspired social movements impossible, Mills argued, but also contributed to a wider project of “contaminating”, by association, “any broader movement for social reform”.

The negative depictions of black assertiveness and the linking of the left to violence and disorder in these novels would find echoes, Mills noted, in conservative media diatribes in the 1970s against the democratic socialist government led by Michael Manley, and laid the ideological groundwork for the defeat of Jamaican popular struggle in that decade. Rereading Mills’s spy novel essay today, it is hard not to think about the role that similar caricatures of the Black Lives Matter movement play in our politics. In some quarters at least, these distortions have meant that even the most impeccably liberal protests against racism – taking the knee, say – are seen as controversial.

“Red Peril to the Green Island” was published in Caribbean Studies. Later, Mills would complain of the “intellectual segregation” forced on philosophers of colour, who were required to separate out those interests that emerged from their engagement with “black and Third World” struggles, and those interests that were deemed properly “philosophical”. A refusal of this segregation would become a unifying principle of Mills’s work.

In a 1994 essay, “Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the African-American Experience”, Mills described teaching his first course in African American philosophy. He had decided to pair Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Reflecting on the choice, Mills explained that while the Groundwork was the signal text for the philosophical ideal of personhood, Huckleberry Finn offered his students “moral knowledge” of “a world in which the moral community of full personhood terminates at the boundaries of white skin”.

Teaching Huckleberry Finn demonstrated Mills’s commitment to the philosophical value of literature. It also answered to Mills’s felt duty to his black students not to “gloss over” their “historic subordination”. This was not simply a gesture of kindness, or even solidarity. For Mills, grappling with racial domination was a task of deep philosophical importance.

In “Non-Cartesian Sums”, Mills described the “feeling of alienness, strangeness, of not being entirely at home” that black philosophers can experience in the “conceptual world” of mainstream philosophy, in which race was barely discussed, and where theorising began from the assumption that everyone was uncomplicatedly free and equal.

Reckoning with the “philosophical significance” of the long global history of colonialism, empire and white supremacy would, Mills proposed in another 1994 essay, “Revisionist Ontologies: Theorising White Supremacy”, require an “explicit reconceptualisation of political philosophy”. He called on “black philosophers in political theory – or rather all philosophers interested in the elimination of racism, and in bringing mainstream philosophy down from its otherworldly empyrean musings – to take global white supremacy as a political system and begin to map its contours”. This call to the future came with the reminder to acknowledge an often obscured past. In “Revisionist Ontologies”, Mills argued that most existing histories of political philosophy rested on a partial, and partisan, understanding of the scope of the discipline.

At the time, many political philosophers embraced a death-and-resurrection narrative, according to which their discipline, after dwindling in importance in the mid-century, was triumphantly revived by John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice in 1971. But this widespread account, Mills would later point out, was in fact the product of a skewed “white and Eurocentric” perspective. (In this sense, the story that political philosophers told about themselves was not unlike postwar spy novels.) For throughout the time that political philosophy was supposedly “dead”, theoretical work was being done by figures such as Frantz Fanon and Aimé Césaire, on the injustices and social ontologies of colonial and neocolonial regimes.

For Mills, the work of such theorists – rarely, at that time, included on Anglophone political philosophy syllabuses – deserved to be treated as part of our “usable past”; they were no less “worthily philosophical” than “orthodox textbook white theory”. The demand that we “decolonise the curriculum”, as we now say, was not, Mills argued more than 25 years ago, a matter of affirmative action or tokenism. It was about expanding students’ access to valuable knowledge, perhaps the first among a teacher’s duties.

On Mills’s view, anti-racist teaching and scholarship could be considered a form of activism – albeit “a very comfortable kind”, as he put it in one of his final interviews. (He knew the difference, having helped to unionise teaching assistants while a graduate student at the University of Toronto.) But where some worry that a vision of philosophy as activism entails an abandonment of the discipline’s commitment to truth, for Mills it involved a relentless truth-telling, often in the face of an intransigent profession.

A further feature of Mills’s early work that marked him out among his contemporaries was the seriousness with which he engaged with feminism. While so many men of his generation, within both political philosophy and political theory, were ignoring the interventions of feminist scholars, Mills embraced their arguments and credited them for the ideas on which he built his own work.

Memorials to Mills remarked on his sustained engagement with Susan Okin and especially Carole Pateman, from whose idea of the “sexual contract” he drew inspiration for his own “racial contract”. Less often noted, but no less formative, was Mills’s career-long engagement with black feminists, including bell hooks, Angela Davis, Barbara Smith, Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Crenshaw. The first course Mills taught on African American philosophy, in the early 1990s, included a week dedicated to “black feminism”.

In a 1988 essay, “Alternative Epistemologies”, Mills described rape “as a sustaining mechanism of patriarchal repression” whose significance “[a] woman’s perspective was required to uncover”. But he noted that, because the theorists who had developed this analysis were largely white and middle class, it required the perspective of black and working-class women to reveal “the particular historical significance of the rape accusation when made against black men by white women”. An account of social subordination “which does not draw on the experiences of women and blacks”, he went on, “is simply theoretically weaker than one which does”.

Charles Mills is rightly eulogised as a giant of the field. But there is also an important sense in which he approached political philosophy in a way that suggests little interest in being remembered as another of its “great men”. We can understand the arc of his career as an attempt to answer the calls of his own early essays, while inviting others to join in: to create theory where there was none, to recognise the value of texts all too often sidelined, and to insist on a history of political philosophy that does not cleave to exclusionary conceptions of the discipline. We repay our debt of gratitude by continuing this work.

Sophie Smith is associate professor of political theory at the University of Oxford. Her most recent article, “Historicising Rawls”, elaborates on Charles Mills’s contributions to the history of 20th-century political philosophy.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland. Wendland is vision fellow in public philosophy at King’s College, London and a senior research fellow at Massey College, Toronto. He tweets @aj_wendland.

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