Negotiating the Non-negotiable: Rawls, Derrida and the Intertwining of Political Calculation and Ultra-politics

Theory and Event 9 (3):15 (2006)
I examine the relationship that obtains between the work of Derrida and Rawls, not least because of the conviction that Derrida (and post-structuralism more generally) offers certain invaluable things to political thought that analytic political philosophy would do well to take account of, particularly as concerns the relation between time and politics. In Derrida’s case, his emphasis on the radical difference of the future, the ‘to come’, serves as a guardrail against political absolutisms of all sorts. On his view, when the future is thought of as known or susceptible of teleological prediction, this tends to lead to what might be rhetorically called outbreaks of either Fascism or Communism (albeit initially non-organised, non-systematised, and without direct state complicity) in which that future state of affairs can justify the violent means needed to get there. Derrida’s many and varied arguments about the way in which the future disrupts the present, and has its impact upon the present, without itself being capable of coming to any kind of definitive presence, precludes this move. His quasi-transcendental emphasis on the importance of time and futurity to any understanding of the political is also useful when employed as a critical tool to examine analytic political philosophy: it highlights that this tradition is often either atemporal in its calculations, or relies upon references to intuition (and ‘commonsense’) in more or less obvious ways, both tendencies which deserve be subjected to critical scrutiny for their tacit alignment with a conservatism that wants to preserve the status quo. But the argument that I propose is not simply that figures like Derrida are able to show us the presuppositions and problems with analytic political philosophy and with Rawls’ work in particular. On the contrary, although philosophers like Derrida and Deleuze acknowledge the necessity of political calculation, it is also the case that it is vastly under-thematised in their work. Utilitarianism and liberalism offer two sustained and important attempts at providing such a calculation and it seems to me that a rapprochement of these traditions is required, fleshing out the kinds of political calculations that might better respect the significant moral insight at work in post-structuralism. In order to point to the need for such a political philosophy, this essay highlights some problems with Rawls and Derrida’s two competing ways of treating the political, juxtaposing Rawls’ insistence upon the calculable and narrower understanding of the political against (or, more aptly, in apposition with) the Derridean focus upon the incalculable.
Keywords political philosophy  Rawls  Derrida  reason  reflective equilibrium
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