Tuesday, August 14, 2012

social justice vs. socialism, or diversity vs. division

I have two questions about "social justice":

1. Why qualify "justice"?

2. Who benefits when justice is qualified?

Those questions rose when I saw four things:

1. "Social justice" is used by children of privilege, graduates of the US's most expensive private schools.

2. Social justice activists talk in quasi-religious terms about making a better world, but when you ask for their solutions, they only offer bourgeoisie oblige, the notion that the powerful should be generous toward people who are not white, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, upper-class, etc.

3. Social justice activists see infinitely divisible identity groups in conflict—people of color vs. white people, women vs. men, straight folks vs. gay folks, the transgendered vs. the cisgendered, the disabled vs. the physically or mentally able, etc. Socialists see sisters and brothers in the human family.

4. Social justice activists have a racial model for group identity: if you don't share a fundamental identity, you may be an ally, but you will always be an outsider. Socialists have a tribal model: what matters is your allegiance, not your class identity—a fact that baffles many capitalists, who shriek as though it matters that Marx and Engels were middle-class, as if people's social class matters more than their work.

The divisive nature of social justice struck me forcefully when I saw this entry in Group dynamics - Intergroup conflict reduction:
...A number of these models utilize a superordinate identity to reduce prejudice. That is, a more broadly defined, ‘umbrella’ group/identity that includes the groups that are in conflict. By emphasizing this superordinate identity, individuals in both subgroups can share a common social identity.[33] For example, if there is conflict between White, Black, and Latino students in a high school, one might try to emphasize the ‘high school’ group/identity that students share to reduce conflict between the groups. Models utilizing superordinate identities include the common ingroup identity model, the ingroup projection model, the mutual intergroup differentiation model, and the ingroup identity model.[33]
Stressing what unites us is a classic model for resolving conflict, but it's a model that's rejected by social justice activists—and by every hierarchist who practices divide et imperia, divide and conquer.

When I went looking for the origin of "social justice", my first surprise was not that it's primarily a religious concept—its rhetoric prepared me for that—but that it began with Luigi Taparelli and Antonio Rosmini-Serbati, Catholics who wanted to thwart the socialist upheavals of the 1840s. Seeking an answer to social unrest, the first social justice activists looked to the past. In place of capitalism, they offered theism; in place of socialism, they offered charity.

What began as a Catholic response to poverty was adopted by liberal capitalists of many beliefs, including atheists, who will happily give up any "privilege" other than wealth. While you can find articles on the web by Jews, Muslims, and atheists who stress that social justice is not socialism, I was struck by two by Catholics:

Is social justice the same as socialism? | USCatholic.org: "Social justice isn't an economic or political theory, but an outlook that seeks to strengthen the identity of the individual because it sees that human dignity derives its meaning from being made in God's image (Gen. 1:26)."

Social Justice = Socialism? » Catholic Sistas: "Socialism is conscription, a disallowal of free will. By legislating and forcing the “distribution of wealth”, much of the good of helping our less fortunate brethren is lost. "

The first article is a reasonable explanation of the difference from a Catholic perspective, but the second is more revealing because the Catholic Sista's biases are blatant. Socialists believe in democracy, yet many social justice activists describe socialism as though it were Stalinism. The Sista's second sentence is especially damning from a socialist perspective: She believes it's better for the poor to starve than for the rich to have restrictions on their free will.

Incompatible concepts of freedom are the heart of the divide between socialism and social justice. To socialists, everyone should be free to vote to share the wealth. To social justice activists, the rich should be free to be charitable when they please.

Oscar Wilde answered the champions of philanthropy: "It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property." A Jewish proverb, ignored by Jewish supporters of social justice, puts it more subtly and more simply: "Charity looks at the need and not at the cause."

ETA: A quote that's liked by fans of social justice and despised by fans of socialism: "Let Catholic writers take care, when defending the cause of the proletariat and the poor, not to use language calculated to inspire among the people aversion to the upper classes of society." —Pope Pius X, Apostolic Letter to the Bishops of Italy on Catholic Church Action, 1903


  1. Okay, one quibble:
    "Socialists see sisters and brothers in the human family."

    Actually, socialists see (or, in my opinion, ought to see) class as a fundamental division of society, and to be fighting to end that division through the victory of the working class.

    1. Agreed regarding the nature of the division; I thought about including something about that, and might say more if I have cause to do another draft. But the reason socialists work for the victory of the working class is to end the class distinctions that divide us--or, to stick with the metaphor, to unite the human family.

    2. Agreed. The followers of identity politics might make the same claim as to their goals. But to put the kindest possible face on it: their methods can do nothing but strengthen capitalism, and thus make those artificial and destructive divisions more robust. To put a more realistic face on it: I don't believe them.

    3. I believe many of them are sincere. Every political movement has its useful idiots.

      But I can't imagine there aren't people behind social justice who say, "Ah, a wedge to divide the left. Hurrah!"

  2. Will, this is good. So good that I've passed the link on to friends. So, of course, I'm going to pick out something I somewhat disagree with, and make an issue of it. :-)

    You write: When you ask for [social justice activists'] solutions, they only offer bourgeoisie oblige, the notion that the powerful should be generous toward people who are not white, male, heterosexual, Christian, able-bodied, upper-class, etc.

    If only. I see them passing legislation which tramples other civil rights, and many people's sense of fair play, in order to enforce their sense of bourgeoisie oblige. Cf Radley Balko's latest on sex crime witch hunts. Beyond that: academic speech codes, hate crime legislation, Title IX, affirmative action, racial quotas, "arrest the man" domestic violence laws.

    If they were only preachy about it, it wouldn't be so bad.

    1. Got to agree with you on censorship, though I haven't run into many who actually support racial quotas. In my experience, if you ask them if they want racial quotas, they get all huffy that anyone would suggest that.

      I've been a fan of Title IX, though my support for it was based on its initial implementation, when it made a huge difference in what women and girls could do. But I just read this:


      I should look into whether people have been abusing it, but I doubt I'll get to that anytime soon.

  3. Most everybody says they oppose racial quotas, right before they enact them. From this week's headlines: Maryland Board of Ed seeks Racial Quotas in School Discipline.

    1. Thanks for pointing that out! I left this comment there: "Interesting article, but I was a bit surprised that you never mentioned class. What happens to the current racial disparities when you compare discipline rates for lower-class black kids with those for lower-class white kids, for middle-class black kids with middle-class white kids, etc."