Most of us have a sense of “justice”. We can all be outraged if we personally suffer from what we consider to be an injustice. Socialists are often surprised by just how shocked people can be when the inherent injustice of the capitalist system impacts on them as individuals. For many, politics is felt to be remote from their personal lives. It is only when an individual tragedy is suffered that some become politically aware and “active”. An obvious example is when innocent bystanders are injured or killed in a “terrorist outrage” of some kind. The irony is, of course, that such acts are invariably motivated by someone else’s sense of injustice. This might just include the desire for social justice and it is this we will seek to define.
Children are often heard declaring the unfairness of this or that. Amongst siblings any perceived parental preference for one over the other is felt as an intense injustice. In nature this battle for parental attention is a matter of life and death. In humans it is more often a matter of emotional validation for the child. A childhood without the expression of love from the parents is a lonely and terrible place. Any reasonable person would expect a parent to maintain some kind of equality in their response to all of their children. And here is the basis of any concept of justice – social equality. We expect to be treated by others the way we attempt to treat them. The fact that our insecurities and ignorance sometimes make this impossible only increases its importance as a social necessity.
Of course these sentiments have not always been, and in some parts of the world are still not, accepted. For instance it is only in relatively recent times that a female child is considered the equal of a male child. Furthermore, the whole concept of social equality is considered an anathema in hierarchical societies while in Western Europe it is morally acceptable but considered impractical as a political reality.
To an impartial observer, perhaps a tourist from another planet, there is a glaring contradiction between the values expressed by those in power and the social reality. Nowhere is this more exemplified than in capitalism’s legal system. The power of the state is justified by the claim that the law is applied equally to every citizen. Theft in all its forms, with one glaring exception, is condemned and its practitioners pursued. But profit is the ‘raison d’être’ of the whole system and what is this if not lalised theft? The exploitation of labour may be legal but isn’t the taking of wealth from someone without exchanging something of equal value the definition of theft?
A similar hypocrisy exists concerning the crime of murder. The intentional killing of one person by another is illegal and immoral unless committed during a war when the offender is quite likely to receive a medal. Even if we concede the illogicality of the system can it be said that it is applied equally to all? Only the most naïve of us can maintain this when a “good lawyer” can cost a fortune in contrast to one appointed via legal aid.
When the capitalist class began its conquest of political power during the English Revolutions of the 17th century they converted not only the mode of production but also the theory of justice that rationalised its ubiquity. The enclosure of the common land already begun by the old regime was accelerated until wage slavery became the only option for the majority to sustain itself. So like all the subsequent bourgeois revolutions, the capitalist system was created through acts of theft and murder. This new reality was continually defended by theories of justice, which sought only to legitimise the new rulers, and their source of wealth and power – the exploitation of labour for the extraction of profit. Although many were aware of this hypocrisy and sought to redress the injustice of the realities of their lives via trade unions etc., historically there was no alternative to the capitalist mode of production – until much later.
Someone once said that a child has no understanding of justice because it will readily condemn the weather, when it prevents some activity or other, as unfair. It is the same with socialists, that person said, the system is like the weather and we have no power over it – it is the only reality and when socialists complain of its injustice we are like children shaking our fists at the elements. But events are undermining that identification of capitalism with nature as the only reality. Humanity now has the power to feed the world several times over and it is only the law of production for profit that prevents it. Capitalism has evolved the mode of production to a point where it has become an anachronism as an economic and political system. It has indeed created the nails for its own coffin
Theories of “justice” evolve and change in response to the economic realities of human life, and that history might represent the redemption of humanity from its invention of private property is a seductive idea. What the writer knows for sure in his humble role as a socialist propagandist is that capitalism and its defenders are now dealing with a remorseless tide of discontent fuelled, amongst many other things, by the tension between its promises and its reality.