chapter  12
Pages 25

Political theory these days has far too little to say about political action. The field’s defining debates in the last generation have centered instead on the study of justice. What justice means, how it relates to community and to public deliberation, and whether it can accommodate differences of culture and identity are the issues that have most preoccupied political theorists. Our theories of justice do make plenty of assumptions about citizens as agents; in particular, they assume a capacity for rational autonomy. Yet they have not adequately explored the nature and conditions of the agency they assume.1 In this respect, political agency is very much present in political theory even despite its absence, although it is strikingly undertheorized. One reason for political theory’s lack of attention to political action is the belief among many theorists that action is a merely practical affair, grounded primarily in psychological and sociological considerations. Political theory, being a normative enterprise, should focus not on what citizens do but on what they ought to do, hence not on political action but on political norms. This view of what political theory is about reflects what Bernard

Williams has called “the intense moralism” of the field.2 The theories of justice that dominate today give strict priority to the moral over the political; in particular, they represent “the continuation of a (Kantian) morality as the framework of the [political] system.”3 They draw unnecessarily sharp divides between “principle and interest, or morality and prudence.”4 Both Rawls and Habermas, the dominant contemporary theorists of justice, manifest this moralism in their work. Even the later work of Habermas, which claims to look for justice “between facts and norms,” ultimately privileges “the moral rather than the facts.”5 The upshot is not only that political theory is heavy on normative standards and light on political realities, but that the normative standards it identifies tend to be distorted by its neglect of political and psychological facts, including facts about political agency.