Key thinker: Charles W. Mills (1951–2021)
Charles W. Mills (1951–2021)
Charles W. Mills was born in London and grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, where his family moved shortly after he was born. He attended the University of the West Indies, graduating with a BSc in Physics in 1971. Following a brief stint teaching Physics at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in Kingston, Mills left Jamaica to pursue MA and PhD degrees in philosophy at the University of Toronto (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/us/charles-w-mills-dead.html). In Toronto, Mills first encountered the historical materialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—he even wrote his doctoral thesis on the concept of ideology in their respective works. But Mills would eventually distance himself from Marxism, choosing instead to adopt a black radical liberalism (https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/red-to-black). Through this project, he hoped to write race back into the history of liberal social contract theory.
Mills was committed to challenging the whiteness and Eurocentrism of Western philosophy; he was one of the first philosophers to critically interrogate the connection between race and liberalism (see 10.4. The Racial Contract). But his critique was not limited to the intellectual foundations of Western thought: as a Black philosopher in a predominantly white field, he drew attention to the lack of diversity in organizations like the American Philosophical Association (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/27/us/charles-w-mills-dead.html). Mills would go on to teach at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Illinois, and Northwestern University, before finally settling at the City University of New York where he remained until his death. Charles W. Mills died in Evanston, Illinois on September 20, 2021. He was 70 years old.
Mills is perhaps best known for his 1997 book, The Racial Contract, which shows that racism shaped liberal social contract theory (see 10.4. The Racial Contract). Building on feminist philosopher Carol Pateman’s The Sexual Contract (1988) (see 10.3. The Sexual Contract) Mills argues that social contract theory was founded on the exclusion of women, people of colour, and the working class from the realm of politics. From its very beginning, social contract theory excluded those who were perceived to be inferior. Behind the veil of inclusivity and egalitarianism was an ugly truth: liberalism’s promise of equal rights had only ever applied to white, and often propertied, men. For Mills, the supposedly universal egalitarianism of social contract theory is a myth (see 10.4.1. Universalism and Hypocrisy). Mills takes aim at the entire tradition of liberal political thought, from Plato (see Chapter 2 on Plato) to John Rawls (see Chapter 32 on John Rawls), which has ignored the important role that white supremacy played in the making of the modern world. White supremacy, he argues, is at the very heart of the Western liberal tradition.
But if racism and white supremacy are so central to modern political thought, why have they been ignored by academic philosophy and political theory? Mills argues that white philosophers are unable or unwilling to see the racism that is embedded in their professional and social privilege (see 10.4. The Racial Contract: Key Points). Liberal social contract theory’s thought experiments assume that people are ignorant of their own and others’ position in society (see ‘veil of ignorance’ in Key thinker biography on John Rawls). But Mills shows that this is just a convenient way of ignoring the fact that one’s privilege might be founded on the suffering of others. Mills refers to this unwillingness to recognize such privileges as ‘white ignorance’ (see 10.4.2. Whiteness and ignorance). Since the Enlightenment, Western philosophy has fostered an epistemology of ignorance which relies on an individualized conception of knowledge production. Mills argues that these forms of knowledge production ignore that individual thought is rooted in cultures and societies, not in normative abstractions.
Because political theory’s origins in white supremacy have been ignored by liberal political theorists, the racial dimension of its epistemology remains obscured. Mills argues that liberal political theory today reproduces white supremacy through the exclusion and marginalization of non-Western thought (see 10.6. Exclusion). For Mills, ideal theories like Rawls’ theory of justice, which focus solely on abstract principles of justice, assume a race-less universality that does not correspond to evidence supplied by non-ideal theories. Ideal theories of justice (see Key concept: Ideal Theory in Chapter 32 on John Rawls) obscure actual historical and present injustices, thereby actively preventing us from addressing these. Mills concludes that ideal theory is an ideology which mistakes the experiences, ideas, values, norms, and beliefs of well-off white males, who are overrepresented in academic philosophy, as universal. Therefore, ideal theory is unable to recognize that prejudices relating to race or gender, for example, might make some people less able to participate in politics than others.
The task of political philosophy, then, is to point to past and existing injustices in our society, and to find ways of addressing these injustices. If ideal theory is to expand beyond its limited vision, it must take non-ideal theory into account, defined by Mills as the kind of theory which takes seriously the history of struggles against actual domination. Only by acknowledging and incorporating knowledge produced in the struggle of non-white people against white domination—he names struggles against slavery, imperialism, and colonialism as examples—can ideal theory become a useful and inclusive way of thinking about politics and society, or serve as a tool for the liberation of oppressed groups.
Mills, Charles W. ‘“Ideal theory” as Ideology.’ Theories of Justice, 2017, 565-84.
Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Losurdo, Domenico. Liberalism: A Counter-History. London/New York: Verso, 2005.
Mills, Charles W. The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999.
John-Baptiste Oduor, “Red to Black”, New Left Review: Sidecar, 27 October 2021.