I got to thinking about social justice. Partly this was because I'm doing a debate on Wednesday with someone who comes billed as a 'Social Justice Campaigner' and partly because it's a term I see used again and again but which seems to avoid clarity or definition. On the one hand we can point to a right wing version as typified by the Centre for Social Justice:
By combining hands-on experience, public involvement, academic rigour and effective political engagement, the CSJ has been able to work from a foundation that has sparked radical public policy change. Since 2004 we have set out over 800 ideas – published across more than 20 research themes – that would make a transformative difference in people’s lives. Many of these recommendations have influenced the political process significantly, revolutionising a tired debate about poverty and social justice. These include: radical welfare reform through Universal Credit; early years intervention programmes; political commitments to prevent family breakdown; pioneering education reforms; efforts to improve the rehabilitation of offenders and drug addicts; action on street gangs; and support for people with unmanageable debts.
I see this as having the same relationship to Conservatism as Methodism appears to have to English protestantism - at least in so far as I understand these things. Indeed, the CSJ does come across as drawing on a Christian conservative tradition that might be associated with 19th century 'muscular Christians', with G K Chesterton or, more recently, with Pope John Paul II. I'm being careful here because the mixing of religion and politics is always tricky. What is clear from the CSJ position on social justice is that it is about poverty and exclusion rather than inequality per se.
The other hand contains the left wing world of our social justice campaigner - the one I'm seeing on Wednesday is from this organisation:
JUST is a groundbreaking initiative set up by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust in 2003 to promote racial justice in West Yorkshire. Since its establishment JUST has become a leading voice in the North promoting racial justice, civil liberties and human rights. The fall-out from the 2001 Northern Uprisings and the introduction of draconian legislation following the 7/7 London bombings has resulted in civil liberties and human rights increasingly becoming an integral part of our work in the region.
In an era where the Community Cohesion and Prevent agendas have become the key paradigms of government policy and the Race and Institutional Racism agendas have been rolled back by the State, the adverse impact on Black and minority ethnic people has been unprecedented.
BME people continue to be over-represented in poverty, discrimination, NEETS, criminal justice, stop and search, education, poor health and other poor quality of life outcomes. Instead of investment in resources and funding to address the generational and historic systemic and structural discrimination that BME people experience, the government’s ‘war on terror’ has ‘criminalised’ BME and particularly Muslim people and its community cohesion policy has put the burden of good race relation on visible minorities.
We're in a very different place here from the CSJ. Instead of the focus on poverty we have an emphasis on inequality - the view that government and other institutions are contributors to the lack of justice faced, in this case, by BME communities. And we can encounter the same language from others advocating for LGBT, for women's rights and even for religious minorities (this is hinted at with JUST West Yorkshire saying "...particularly Muslim people....").
The question here is whether we have two entirely different definitions of social justice or whether there is a common theme between the anti-poverty positioning of the CSJ and the minority rights approach of JUST West Yorkshire. I did trawl through the philosophical underpinnings of the idea - from John Rawls backwards (always best to work backwards with philosophy) to Locke and Hobbes via Rousseau. As usual with philosophy it's about a penetrable as six-inch thick steel plate but the themes of poverty and equality (or equity) were common as was this idea of a 'social contract'. Indeed this latter concept seems to me quite the central consideration.
The problem is that this social contract is every bit as nebulous as the idea of social justice. Not only is the contract not written down but there seems to be some confusion as to whether it applies to all of humanity or merely to parts of humanity. Is the social contract something sitting at the level of the neighbourhood (say Cullingworth), region or nation? And is the General Will that Rousseau talks about essentially a vocalisation of that social contract? Finally, who interprets or enforces the social contract and how do we know that reflects the General Will?
I'm saying all this, not because I want to answer all those questions (I'm not sure we can), but rather because we need to understand that, if social justice is the enforcement of Rousseau's social contract, it can only be done through authoritarian means and through the preference for communal rights over individual rights. To do this someone - or some organisation - has to become the arbiter of what is or isn't a breach of that social contract or, in other words, is contrary to social justice.
Sometimes all this is pretty straightforward because there is no conflict between individual and communal rights - for example in arguing that it's wrong to exclude someone from employment on the basis of skin colour, gender or sexual preference. But where personal views (and our right to express them) are concerned we can only enforce social justice by denying individual rights. Thus the 'social justice right' may wish to prevent (or actively discourage) 'non-traditional' family arrangements and the 'social justice left' may want to stop the expression of support for such a traditionalist position. Both positions deny people a right - either to live in a non-traditional family or to express opposition to that idea.
The problem is that both sides invoke (at least implicitly) the idea of the social contract in defence of their position. Yet the positions are - for essentially the same reason on each side - mutually exclusive. The left says excluding the non-traditional is unfair or unequal while the right says that the non-traditional arrangements promote poverty and therefore inequality. Social justice cannot be delivered unless one or other position is rejected.
For the right this means championing stable communities, families (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and often the fear of god. Hard work, community involvement and self-sacrifice in the interest of future generations are held as essential virtues - the social contract is an unwritten commitment to the whole community and that community is local, limited and seeks to be resilient. Social justice is served where everyone is part of secure, supportive and strong communities.
The problem is that this leads to social stasis, to paternalism and to the exclusion of people who reject (or have a different idea of) the essential community virtues. Plus, of course, someone has to define and enforce those virtues, to be the authority.
In the case of the left social justice is served by rejecting homogeneity, placing equality as the primary virtue and ensuring that no actions or speech undermines this primacy. The result is - or aims to be - a homogeneity between communities rather than within communities. Anything that questions the primacy of equality as the social contract's purpose cannot be permitted. Moreover the meaning of equality becomes fluid - it is determined by authority rather than by the reality of access to opportunity. As a result individual rights become secondary as communal rights come to dominate society. It is acceptable to 'no platform' a speaker if it is feared their words might contest the enforcement of the social contract - in ensuring social justice.
I had thought to draw the philosophical line forward down a different route to Giovanni Gentile's transition from Actualism to Fascism where the question of who interprets the General Will was answered though the idea of 'the leader'. The problem, however, is that this takes us - implicit authoritarianism aside - away from the modern position where leadership is more complex. Rather than a single identified leader, we have a sort of groupthink - a hive mind perhaps - that provides the basis on which the General Will is decided and the social contract upheld. Because this collective has market power, authorities bow to the pressure it asserts and exclude those who fail to conform with the perceived General Will.
In the end social justice is really something desired and doesn't need to be defined. The politician who proclaims he is fighting for social justice secures approval by seeming to support some sort of community betterment. The reality is that, whether from right or left, social justice is illiberal and excluding - either by enforcing an intra-communal conformity (the right) or by insisting on an inter-communal conformity (the left). The biggest loss here is, for me, individuality and the accompanying rights to speak, act and live freely.