John Gray on Martha Nussbaum's latest
It is difficult to think of a time when liberal political thought has been as remote from political practice as it is today. There are many reasons for this situation, including the near-complete rout of liberal forces by the right. But a part of the reason lies in the development of liberal thought itself. Liberal thinkers, in the universities where they have retreated, appear to believe their main task is to specify the basic liberties of individuals and the principles of distribution for other social goods, in the conviction that once these have been identified they can be embodied in law and interpreted by courts. In this now conventional view the principles of justice can be derived from an underlying moral consensus that is embodied in modern democratic societies, and since these will be principles that all reasonable people can accept, there will be no possibility of radical political conflict. No doubt there will still be some need for political activity, but not in order to protect liberal values. Liberal values will not be at risk, since they will be enshrined in law.
and it ends with this:
In a curious convergence liberal theory has given up on politics at a time when liberal values have become marginal in practice. Instead of trying to understand the forces that shape political life--as John Stuart Mill did in his writings on socialism and nationality, for example--contemporary liberal thinkers have constructed a legalistic edifice from which politics has been excluded. Nussbaum is aware that this rickety structure shuts out a great deal that is important, and in Frontiers of Justice she tries to let in some light. If she achieves less than she might it is because the giant shadow of Rawls stands in her way.
Has liberal theory reached a dead end? I don't know enough about current trends in liberal theory to comment confidently, but from what I know I think I'm with Gray on this: it seems much liberal theory has become too distant from the consideration of existing political reality, assuming too uncritically the existence of nations and states in forms that no longer seem plausible and focusing too much on very parochial debates. (Do we need more sociology and comparative politics in political theory?)