What is the point of working out visions of the best possible society? This has been much debated in recent political philosophy, with the focus largely being on philosophical methodology—whether we should begin with concrete situations and real struggles, for instance, as opposed to picturing ourselves as founding legislators just off the boat. Yet the question surely also pertains to our lives as citizens. That, at least, is the argument of my first book, Plato as Critical Theorist, which claims that excellent citizenship in a liberal democracy requires one to engage in ideal theory. To make this case I turn to Plato, who on my reading argues that ideal theory will have a role to play in the ideal society itself. The first half of the book justifies and explores this interpretation of the Republic by way of one chapter on the metaphysics, one on political power and another on symbolic power. The second half shows that the relevant parts of Plato’s politics can be made compatible with liberal democracy; each and every citizen would have to work out their own conception of the best possible society and adjust their work in light of it. This is of course an ideal, but that does not make it idle—I end by showing how it both illuminates and bolsters a central strand in Marx’s critique of capitalism. For more on this project, please see my interview with Andy Fitch for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

I am currently beginning a second project on socialism. Broadly speaking, the strategy is to treat socialism as a normative ideal upstream from particular policies like restrictions on markets and private property. My proposal is that the socialist ideal concerns the orientation of our day-to-day labours: whereas the left-liberal ideal is concerned primarily with how to distribute goods, the socialist ideal as I conceive it focuses primarily on what is actually produced. The book that will eventually result from this second project will have two sides: an attempt to provide a philosophically satisfying articulation of the tradition of utopian and/or ethical socialism that runs from Plato to G. A. Cohen; and an inquiry into the past and present of social theory in the broadest sense, by which I mean philosophical and sociological reflection on what societies, institutions, conventions and so on actually are. The first step is an article called Moneymakers and Craftsmen: A Platonic Approach to Privatization, recently published in the European Journal of Philosophy, which argues that ownership structures should be assessed in terms of the way that they shape modes of deliberation. The second step is an article sketching the overall approach – here is a draft: Neo-Socialism – A Sketch.