“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”-- how does one get from analysis to synthesizing a theory justice to pursue.
I am ending Strange Attractors.
I set out to do something with this letter that, I thought, was somewhat interesting: rather than simply view a piece of media through a political lens (a format, I think, particularly during the podcasting-era of media studies, has been beaten to death), I tried to identify the political themes of the thing, providing deep historical and philosophical context, which I’d hoped would help in identifying the parallels to my readers’ lives in recognizing them myself, many of which were no doubt similarly relateable and visible to those of my generation.
My last piece was about forms, how modernity can be used to violate them, and just as a form can be effective cultural shorthand for a complex set of concepts, so can it be exploited to perform an injustice. That’s what I hoped to point out about our media culture: You can interpret a thing as it is using an assumption that we recognize natural law governance when we see it, rather than things being appropriated in bad faith to an unnatural end (for a contemporary example: something like means testing as part of liberal social program, which nominally addresses the issue, but fails in getting it to those most in needs to avoid advantaging, tangentially, those who it may not help).
I want to talk about something fairly straight forward in this piece that, I hope, will leave y’all with a sense of what I hoped to come from a blog of quasi-satire, applied political philosophy, and the utilization of history: what makes a theory of justice.
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that, while often derived behind a “veil of ignorance”, behind which those subjected to it rarely are a party to its intentions and motivations and thus are beholden to their own, collective, best intentions, but primarily, that justice ensures maximal benefit for the least advantaged, with the most advantaged becoming more advantaged only if it serves this prior commitment. Plenty of examples of this latter clause being required, or not being required, probably come to mind. But applied to politics, it’s fundamentally just asking this question: “Does this decision increase, or decrease democracy?” Of fundamental human rights, Rawls writes:
“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many. Therefore in a just society the liberties of equal citizenship are taken as settled; the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.”
Essentially, that which, for example, a socialist society might theorhetically satisfy a definition of justice (welfare, health, education), an unjust system would be willing to do something like make them subject to market forces. So, if we accept that we can’t implement a social program because it infringes upon inalienable rights even if it would have mass societal benefit, which would create a marginalized class along whatever line, how Rawls proposes to address the question of justice is taking these limitations, identifying the least advantaged,
An example of such an injustice is create restrictions that accepts deprivation to prevent inefficiencies (preventing some large number of the poor to benefit in order to prevent an almost non-existent number of wealthy people from benefitting from the same program), and therefore, beyond merely now running counter to its own nominal goals, is no longer just. This is the sort of compromise touted in the present day as reasonable and in the interest of social justice. I’m describing, with this example, a very common tactic for enabling a policy, while never having to ever practice it in the interest of the people it’s supposed to serve, because it’s architected to use a theorhetical problem to avoid solving a real one (for example, Matt Bruenig’s discussion of a child tax credit) ; this is the ignorance in practice, and in practice, we’re asked to accept a lesser and lesser evil, yet the yield on how much less has been sub-zero since, at least, the 1980s, in the United States.
In Whit Stillman’s 1994 film Barcelona, there is a protracted subplot about Ted, the protagonist, feeling obligated to translate the aims and intentions of American foreign policy to not only people he interacts with in Spain, who confront him with grim truths about American foreign policy (as far back as the 1890s), which he becomes defensive and “disgusted” over, calling it “blood libel”, which even his cousin, Fred, a Navy advance fleet officer while anti-NATO sentiment grows in Europe at the end of the Cold War. He is drawn in by the venerated justice-minded rhetoric of anti-communist thought, equating it to fascism, failing to recognize the parallels are not between the Soviets and Franco and Mussolini, but between the fascists and NATO. He accepts the premise of justice from the far side of the veil of ignorance, and has no answer for the atrocities he is confronted with.
This doesn’t make Ted an unjust person, but a believer of an unjust framework of adjudication that isn’t being applied (US/NATO intervention, occupation globally). In the process, his defenses of the US agitate locals, which results in an assassination attempt on Fred. In general, not this case in particular, extremism being bred is, sure, not justice, as such, but it’s a justified response to living under injustice; it produces resistant violence, which is justified, and becomes just if in the service of that which occupation and intervention is depriving a just society of— capitulating to the increase of agency over what are human rights (in this case, self-determination, as a principle, and the integrity of the geopolitical landscape’s truth value) is what ultimately brings peace, not a mutual compromise that satisfies both parties to some tolerable measure, while still breeding injustice. That would be, again, ignorance to suggest a disproportionate power balance, differing levels of recognition and material security, is representative of true conflict that can be adjudicated by asking both sides to tolerate losses; in justice of this sort, one side has to lose, and it has to be the more advantaged party losing out to a least advantaged party until the components of justice are satisfied.
Or, put as Rawls had, justice is satisfied when “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”— we can negotiate everything else after.
”Historically one of the main defects of constitutional government has been the failure to insure the fair value of political liberty. The necessary corrective steps have not been taken, indeed, they never seem to have been seriously entertained. Disparities in the distribution of property and wealth that far exceed what is compatible with political equality have generally been tolerated by the legal system. Public resources have not been devoted to maintaining the institutions required for the fair value of political liberty. Essentially the fault lies in the fact that the democratic political process is at best regulated rivalry; it does not even in theory have the desirable properties that price theory ascribes to truly competitive markets. Moreover, the effects of injustices in the political system are much more grave and long lasting than market imperfections. Political power rapidly accumulates and becomes unequal; and making use of the coercive apparatus of the state and its law, those who gain the advantage can often assure themselves of a favored position. Thus inequities in the economic and social system may soon undermine whatever political equality might have existed under fortunate historical conditions.”
You likely recognize a lot of things in this passage from the United States (and its client states) political systems when asked to decide between two evils, and choose the lesser, in the interests of social justice, but attached to political processes, Rawls suggests this may never actually be possible. In the time since he wrote this text, the United States has openly embraced what was Mussolini’s own definition of fascism, effectively the state operated by guilds of corporations acting on mutual class prerogative— our current president, for example, is known not only for his commitment to donor banks, but defense as well; I can think of few industries that embody the sort of injustice we’re allegedly securing against more than these.
Let’s take this to a different level, the word of Leon Trotsky:
”The permanent revolution, in the sense which Marx attached to this concept, means a revolution which makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to Socialist measures and to war against reaction from without; that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in the complete liquidation of class society.”
The historical context of the Russian revolution is that the empire existed only on paper— deeply indebted to other empires across Europe to sustain itself. It not only failed to govern, it failed to justify itself by acknowledging peer monarchies; it was rule for its own sake. Even in France during the 1789 revolution was it acknowledged to be a war of elites in Europe that monarchy had gotten in the way of (England having resolved its own civil war centuries earlier), but as the disparity between least-justified most advantaged and most-justified least advantaged grew more extreme, the response from the public in this third, most extreme, case to correct this equilibrium to create a state of justice from which to work, for Trotsky, seemed irreconcilable.
Justice here meant total “dictatorship of the proletariat”, to ensure the basics rights of everyone, and while we obviously don’t know if Trotsky’s ideology would have manifested similar or better results, under Lenin, the Soviet Union industrialized faster than ever could have been projected, 5 year plan after 5 year plan built an efficient economy that, at its peak, provided housing, jobs, education, and welfare until reforms derailed this in favor of global diplomacy, which was, like it was at the start of the revolution, necessary for its survival (and ultimately its demise by compromise to an external, coercive system of justice between states)— this had to come from armed resistance to restore justice, which had to come at the expense of the most advantaged, there was nothing to give them to ensure the least advantaged restored basic liberties. In instance after instance in the time since these events, we’ve seen these movements maligned, etc. on the basis of violence being unjust, while ignoring that it doesn’t occur within a vacuum; from the issue of Irish independence in the early 20th century to liberating Palestine through the present day, we’re seeing resistance to occupation framed as a reactionary issue, rather than the wholesale denial of writes, cosigned by a minimal number of allies, meaninglessly abhorred by the UN, all in the name of restoring basic justice.
All of this only to see resistance framed (propagandized) as oppression, itself, to question the validity of even holding basic rights as something to be conferred. This isn’t to say armed resistance is required or even preferable in achieving these aims (it was in Russia and Ireland and Palestine, very much may not help elsewhere), but that its framed in this way is in the interests of perpetuating injustice, more than it is in the interests of peace; it’s the difference between docility and calm, the difference between compliance and participation. Viewed objectively, these things are factually complicated, without being morally complex— there is a right and wrong, and too often, the veil of ignorance allows large numbers of people to, uncritically, believe there’s two sides to a conflict, when what you’re viewing is a siege and response to siege.
The ongoing instability in Myanmar provides an example of where the interference is most prevalent; who is right, and who is wrong, is dependent upon who Myanmar is being used as a proxy for— after WWII, and the subsequent fall of European colonial direct rule in Asia (this persisted, and the US took up much of the besieging) the military coup was a triumph over Soviet-bloc communism and must be recognized at all costs over the democratically-elected and militarily-dosed civilian government, and in the present, it’s framed as almost the reverse, for the explicit purpose of implying Russia and China have a stake in this. We’re undermining justice in real-time, to perpetuate justice for the most advantaged, while selling the least advantaged on the truth of this framing, that things that are no longer even hypothetical threats present a clear and present danger to them imminently today, a narrative to double down on.
Complicated, narratively, but not morally complex; when the applied system allows unnecessary suffering for the “greater” prosperity of a larger “many”, justice has failed—Rawls says, “The limitation of liberty is justified only when it is necessary for liberty itself, to prevent an invasion of freedom that would be still worse.” but without the backdrop of basic liberty being inviolable, it makes the political agenda of modern neoliberal thought (borne of conservative influence on moderating more progressive thought) fundamentally unjust while acting in the name of justice, as has been the case for the United States in the last 80 years, at least in the open.
I won’t even call Rawls’ text aspirational, because it speaks to an eminently applicable set of ideas that, if acted on in good faith, can amount to an agenda for great good, just like it can be appropriated in bad faith, draped in willful ignorance for those subject to it— it’s philosophy, not dogma. The utility of it is self-evident; if you want justice, as you understand it, it must be prescribed at the outset, whatever that means for your society— what is expected, but lacked; what is scarce, but willfully deprived; who is hurting, and who is hurting them, much less about why, than how, so they can be best helped:
“The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world. And having done so, they can, whatever their generation, bring together into one scheme all individual perspectives and arrive together at regulative principles that can be affirmed by everyone as he lives by them, each from his own standpoint. Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.”
All that can should from a belief in justice is a stronger, loving world— you learn your whole life from history that if people were better to each other, the devastating sacrifices required to achieve justice would no longer be required, but they (too often) are. So, instead, we’ll hope and fight for a braver world to introspect.
Thanks for reading this past year!
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: