Prolegomena to Democratic Inquiry: On The Priority of Injustice

Last time I was reflecting on the central themes in The Priority of Injustice, I was discussing the contrast between action-oriented social theories and subject-centric interpretations of cultural and political theory and ‘Continental philosophy’. The final part of the book seeks to demonstrate the difference that cleaving more closely to the former strand of thought makes to a geographical programme of political inquiry. The subject-centric view of political life underwrites a form of spatial analysis focussed on closures and exclusions and the positioning of subjects in fields of meaning and affective force. The alternative perspective that I develop in Part 3 of the book revolves around the reconstruction of the principle of all affected interests in recent critical theories of democracy. And, related to this, it also involves a reorientation of a concern with democratic justice around the value of non-domination as distinct from fairness (i.e. it’s not straightforwardly liberal, although it does presume that one should take liberalism more seriously than has become the norm in radical theories of democracy).

In Part 3, this argument unfolds rather slowly, step-by-step, Chapter-by-Chapter, first with a discussion of the all affected interests idea (Chapter 6), then running this theme into a discussion of the centrality of the harm of domination in critical theory (Chapter 7), and then elaborating on how this in turn leads to a shared focus on ‘the priority of injustice’ across strands of critical theory and post-analytical political philosophy (Chapter 8).

The principle of all-affected interests – that anyone affected by a decision should have some say in its formulation – is a fairly intuitive aspect of the idea of democracy. Initially, it combines two aspects – one of being affected, but also of being able to exert agency, of being able to affect outcomes in some way. It is often discussed as a prescriptive norm of one sort or another; more interestingly, in the work of Ian Shapiro for example, it is used to develop an account of democratic inclusion that privileges relations of power over those of membership (Nancy Fraser also has a moment in which she uses it in this sense, although it is subsequently revised). The only problem with that view is that it lends itself to a view of affectedness as something that can be objectively determined by some form of causal analysis (which is why it might be very attractive to geographers, and is also why Fraser ends up moving away from it, on the grounds that it is an idea that supports ‘monological’ forms of reasoning). I suggest in Chapter 6, Claims of the Affected, that one can actually divide the first sense – of being affected – into two, a sense of having an interest in an issue in a kind of objective way, and a sense of taking an interest in an issue, in a sort of subjective way. It’s a distinction that is sometimes made in a prescriptive way (in Shapiro, I think, and also in Robert Goodin’s work on this theme), but sometimes embraced as opening up the idea of affectedness in more fun directions (by Bruno Latour, for example, but Robert Dahl got there first). So, I end up with a threefold heuristic distinguishing between being affected, being moved, and having agency – and then, I suggest that one can use this threefold account of affectedness to better appreciate the importance of Habermas’s translation of the principle of all affectedness into the terms of a theory of communicative action, and how various critics of Habermas further extend this translation in more explicitly contestatory and less rationalistically rationalist visions of democratic politics.

Oh, and all of this is framed by an argument against the presumptive “methodological globalism” of critical theories of democracy (i.e. their suspicion of local, emplaced, bounded, nationalised forms of political life). I close this chapter by suggesting that the threefold version of affectedness maps roughly onto three questions one can ask about the spatial registers of political action – questions about how spatial relations generate issues, serve as mediums for their apprehension as issues, and as potential vectors for effective agency, or not as the case may be (that’s an argument that I have made elsewhere at greater length than I do in this book – here and here, for example).

With what I am sure is a seamless segue, the argument then moves onto Chapter 7, Subjects of Domination, which works back over the theme of all affectedness to tease out the centrality of the harm of domination to recent critical theories of democracy – the discussion centres in particular on Iris Marion Young, my favourite thinker ever, as well as Nancy Fraser, and with a nod to Philip Pettit (not quite perhaps of this same tradition, but an important reference point for it). One thing to underscore about the concern with centring discussions of democratic justice on the issue of domination – of the arbitrary subjection to the will of others – is that it marks a decisive difference separating critical theories of democracy from liberal theories of democracy. Now, I’m quite fond of liberalism, of certain sorts, but of course in TheoryLand it’s a knock-down target – too individualistic, too rationalistic, too universalizing, not radical enough, and so on and so on. In terms of the discussion in this chapter of my book, since it is moving towards an elaboration of the theme of injustice, the pertinent point about egalitarian liberal theories of justice is that they prioritize the value of fairness, in terms of what one is due, of just deserts, fair shares. That’s not a principle to be lightly dismissed, of course. But from the critical theory perspective, the emphasis is not on fairness but upon matters of arbitrary rule – of how one is treated (the distinction is important, for example, for appreciating why Habermas isn’t properly characterised when labelled as a liberal; not that there’s any shame in being one of those, of course). And this matters because it recasts how geography enters into the critical theory imagination of democracy – here, James Bohman’s work is exemplary, because he elaborates on a sense of distanciated and distributed spatial relations as mediums through which people are exposed to to subjection to arbitrary rule by others, or, they are made vulnerable to domination.

Somewhere in all of that, I think I am trying to gesture at a difference between two ways of thinking about “why relationality matters politically”. Thinking of the strung-out relational constitution of social life is not interesting, politically, because it’s a way of telling moral stories about the constitution of identities through disavowal or by revealing the fact of being bound into other people’s actions without knowing it. It is interesting for a much more serious reason, but also perhaps a less all-encompassing one, related to questions of agency and consent and domination (again, Young is the best guide here).

Having got this far – having re-cast the idea of all affectedness and then related it to the value of non-domination, the story moves on to Chapter 8, The Sense of Injustice, in which the theme of the priority of injustice is explicitly elaborated. This theme kind of crept up on me as I was writing the book in 2015. And I’m still trying to work out quite what it involves. The idea as I present it in this Chapter has various sources, perhaps most importantly Judith Shklar’s book The Faces of Injustice, but also Elizabeth Wolgast, and some similar looking ideas in Hannah Pitkin and Cora Diamond, as well as a more systematic consideration by Thomas Simon in Democracy and Social Injustice. There is something vaguely ordinary linking this strand of reflection on the theme. I link this strand of thought to another strand, coming out of critical theory, especially Axel Honneth – and through back him to Barrington Moore, Jr. – and also Rainer Forst. And then, thirdly, a strand of thought which is basically Amartya Sen, most explicitly in his The Idea of Justice. Finally, Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, another book that starts off from Shklar’s provocation, and which is a really interesting combination of analytical political philosophy and strands of poststructuralist feminist theory.

That may or may not seem like a random collection of thinkers, but I think it is actually quite tightly drawn together around a shared prioritization of the sense of injustice as the dynamic of democratization. The argument for the priority of injustice, or at least my grasp of it, goes something like this:

  • First, determinations of injustice can and are made independently of a prior theory of justice (or, to put it another way, you don’t need a universal theory of justice to make judgments about the injustice of a situation).
  • Second, this follows from the fact that injustice has its own texture, a phenomenology of its own (though not a singular one, for sure) – it is not simply a function of the absence of justice or the failure of some party to act justly. Injustice is better understood on the analogy of health and disease (a thought that first came to me at the suggestion of Jouni Häkli on one of the early occasions when I tried to talk about all of this) – illness is not an absence of health, it is a positive condition – diseases have causes and conditions all of their own. One has a cold, or catches the flu.
  • Thirdly, injustice is felt (rather than rationally apprehended by reference to principles) – there are different versions of this argument, in Shklar, Moore, Honneth and others. One implication is that negative feelings – anger, revenge – might be important animating passions of struggles against injustice. But this also has implications for how one imagines the possibility of developing a democratic methodology of the sort implied by Shklar’s argument that the expressions by victims of injustice should be accorded a privilege of some sort (I try to outline some of those implications in the ‘supplementary’ paper on Geography and the priority of injustice).

There’s a lot more to say about this whole theme – it’s a long chapter! One thing that follows from it is that we would do well to not think that justice is an ideal, without thinking the smart thing that follows from that observation is that it is a mere illusion. Justice is done as a response or remedy to some harm or other – it is not a pure phenomenon poorly realised, it is a mark both of an imperfect world and of the possibility of betterment. Which is a thought that might route us back to the theme of the ‘ethnographic emergence’ of the meaning of normative values that was discussed earlier in the book – in given contexts, the meanings of justice, for example, will bear the historical traces of specific harms and compromises, and it might be worth exploring the consequences of that fact.

Another issue that arises from all this is the proposition that injustice is a public phenomenon, related to an argument about the double sense in which claims-making is made central to the recognition and redress of injustices: claims as assertions made against a certain state of affairs and addressed to others, and assertions as acts which need to be processed in some sense or other. That’s a theme I need to develop further and the full implications of which require deeper analysis – not least, I think because it might be key to avoiding what I can see might well be a potential trap for any injustice-centred account of political life, an issue identified in Samuel Moyn’s genealogy of the rise of the politics of human rights since the 1970s. One of the Moyn’s suggestions is that the rise of human rights as an alternative global activist imagination and associated ascendancy ideals of human dignity embedded in human rights campaigning, in law, and in political philosophy involves a redefinition of the relations between morality and politics “around the worst than can transpire in history, rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle” (see Moyn, S. 2014. Human Rights and the Uses of History. London, Verso, p. 33). One challenge of developing an injustice framework is, then, to work through how to avoid this problem of settling, as it were, for trying to avoid the worst rather than striving towards doing things better. But that might be for another book.

Anyway, so that is the narrative sequence of Part 3 of The Priority of Injustice, and it makes perfect sense in my head – reconstructing the theoretical significance of the theme of affectedness in democratic theory (Chapter 6), opening this out to a consideration of the specific form of harm, domination, made central in critical theories of democracy (Chapter 7), and then drawing these two strands together by teasing out the shared emphasis on the priority of injustice in what might appear to be disparate traditions of political thought (Chapter 8).

Now the book is finished, I have to decide what to do next with this whole argument.

 

 

 

 

 

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Changing the Subject: On The Priority of Injustice

The third theme that I have noticed running through The Priority of Injustice in my own re-read through of the whole thing follows on from the themes of ‘spatial grammar’ and the imperative of not seeking to correct other people’s flawed ontologies that I have already mentioned. I have come to view with deep distrust views of the task of Theory as a means of laying bare the aesthetic or affective or cognitive devices that reproduce people’s subjection. The idea that ‘people have been got at’, as Alan Sinfield once put it, is a recurring theme of a great deal of contemporary critical thought, especially when influenced by traditions of ideology critique – an influence that can be traced from theories of ideological state apparatuses through ideas about discourse and representation through to current fascinations with affect and atmospheres and algorithms. Across this range, the idea that politics – both of the sort one doesn’t approve and of the sort one hopes to support – works through changing the subject is a constant.

My interest in the theme of the ordinary is in no small part shaped by an effort to find a way of thinking that escapes the scholastic frame of reference that underwrites the ‘changing the subject’ paradigm. The ordinary is a theme that one can find in various thinkers – in Raymond Williams or Charles Taylor, for example, it is used as a counterpart to ideas of the privileged or the elect qualities of culture. This sense does have some presence in the more specific, but also somewhat elusive, sense of the ordinary that is indebted to Stanley Cavell’s work, elaborated, for example, in the writings of Veena Das. Ordinariness, in a Cavellian spirit, is a matter of affirming that the experience of the distance between the given and the possible is not an extraordinary one – it does not require a crisis, or a rupture, or some disruption of routine for this distance to be felt or apprehended. One reason that this affirmation is important, in relation to theories of subjectivity and subjectification, is that it throws into new relief the interpretation of contingency, whether of meaning or identity. The trick of being able to see all settled or inherited patterns of meaning as arbitrary (and interpreting arbitrariness as basically the same as ‘changeable’) easily leads to a scholastic temptation, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu, of projecting back onto practices under investigation the distance (social and analytical) that enables them to be objectified in the first place, and then transposing the revealed distance between the theoretical possibility of change and practical acceptance into a theory of power (i.e. power works by fixing and naturalising what are in fact fluid and contingent relations). Invoking Cavell, I would argue that this whole way of thinking misplaces “the vulnerability to doubt” that is one of his phrases for the ordinary, by failing to see that skepticism is a constant standing possibility of life, or, as I put it in the book, by not accepting the fact “that the world as we know it is not all that it may seem is an ever-present condition of action”.

Reflecting on all this as I have re-read my own book has made me think that there is actually a really interesting shift evident in the way in which change is figured in social theory over the last couple of decades (a shift that is really a line of important division, not a succession from one way of thinking to another). Explaining social change is, of course, a fairly basic concern of all sorts of social science, and usually involves some genre or another in which action is placed within a broader frame of context, or conditions, or constraint. Various traditions of thought, from the historicism of Weberian sociology to dialectically informed Marxism to theories of resilience, all tend to take it for granted that change is an intrinsic feature of social life – what’s a stake is how it is manifested. But with the ascendancy of subject-centred theories, under the sway of poststructuralist theories and the turn to ontology in particular, one can see the emergence of a different interpretation of change. In these strands of thought – whether it in theories of hegemony or of the distribution of the sensible or ontological politics or assemblage – it is presumed that the task of theory is to account for the stabilisation, ordering, or fixing of life into patterns of serial reproducibility. Change, in these accounts, is extraordinary – the objective is to establish theoretically the very possibility of change itself.

The difference here – between thinking of change as an ordinary feature of life that is manifested in various ways, or thinking of change as a rare event that interrupts orderly routines and stable patterns – seems to me now to be quite central to the contrast that I work through in The Priority of Injustice between action-oriented styles of social theory and subject-centric theories (which would include theories that remain fixated on demonstrating the illusory qualities of ‘the subject’). The latter traditions of thought are strongly attached to images of change as a punctual event – the echoes of classical ideas of revolution remain clear – that disrupts otherwise settled, more or less fixed habits. In the book, I suggest that this range of theory shares in an “unexamined idea of time: political time consists of a kind of punctuated equilibrium, where moments of dramatic and wholesale transformation of entire fields of action interrupt periods of durable and predictable routine.”

The set of relations between concepts of subjectivity-as-subjectification, ontologies of order, and images of change is in turn related to a remarkably resilient, shall we say, notion of the tasks of critique, understood primarily as a practice of denaturalization of apparently naturalized phenomenon – of demonstrating the theoretical possibility of the change-abilty of practices that are, apparently, lived and experienced as eternal and inevitable (the assumption that this is how life is ordinarily lived and experienced is, to reiterate, best thought of as a necessary projection of the methodological protocols derived from ontologized theories of subjectification).

The difference between action-oriented theories and subject-centric ones is partly related, in my discussion, to different attitudes to what Maeve Cooke calls “the justificatory dilemma” facing any avowedly critical theory, referring to the responsibility to justify that existing relationships both can and should be changed. To cut a long story short, subject-centric theories tend either to elide the problem of validity (justifying the vision of alternative futures that underwrites critique) into demonstrations of the plausibility of change, or, if more honest, they elevate openness to change and defamiliarization as the highest normative aspiration available to us (as the very essence of democracy, for example). The difference between these two styles of theory is the central narrative device in The Priority of Injustice – in particular, I use a simple contrast made by Axel Honneth to organize my discussion and evaluation of various strands of democratic theory. Honneth suggests that there are two broad paths out of what he calls the ‘productionist paradigm’ of critical theory (i.e. classical Marxism), in which substitutes for the lost faith in the universalizing agency of the industrial proletariat are found either in more pluralised accounts of rationalities of action (i.e. there’s more to life than labour), or in the search for deep ontological sources of the principle of negativity once invested in the working class (i.e. in antagonism, in abundance, lack, or even more perfectly, in the very gaps and fissures of ontological difference itself).

As you can probably tell, I am drawn towards the action-oriented strands of thought that Honneth points towards, and this informs my attempt to redeem something of value from the increasingly predictable literature on ‘the political’. If there is something distinctive that defines ‘the political’, then it’s not found in some irreducible force of antagonism, or in us/them relations, or in the ever present fact of violence. I commend Mary Dietz’s argument that what defines politics is an irreducible dimension of strategic action – this Machiavellian perspective helps us see that Foucault is the exemplary theorist of politics for our times, because Foucault is fascinated by strategic forms of action (that’s what Habermas and other similar thinkers haven’t liked about his work, and this dislike is what helps us see Foucault as first and foremost a theorist of action rather than ‘power’ -or, that what’s interesting about what he has to say about ‘power’ is the parts which are couched in the vocabulary of action). And all of this just means that rather than thinking of the distinction between politics and the political on the layer-cake analogy derived from political readings of Heidegger, it’s best thought of as directing our attention to the analysis of the different ratios between action and its conditions (that’s a reference to Kenneth Burke that I don’t make in The Priority of Injustice, but which I am thinking of developing properly in my next book).

Another thing to say about all of this is that the contrast between overly ontological readings of ‘the political’ and more ‘phenomenological’ versions that I prefer almost, but not quite exactly, maps directly onto the related contrast between realist/disassociative interpretations of the political and idealist/associative interpretations – my claim is that the significant choice is not between a grim and realist view of politics versus a rosier, more collective view; it’s between more social-theoretical traditions of action theory versus more culturalist-philosophical styles of subject-centric thought.

This argument about concepts of action and the subject is important because it goes to the central issue of how to understand democracy as a mode of the sharing of rule. There are different images of ‘sharing’ available to us, after all – it can be understood in terms of the singular will of all, or on the model of naturalistic consensus found in anarchism, or of being duped into acceding to rule by identifying with available distributions of the seeable and sayable, or, if you prefer, in terms of being bound to respect decisions to which one was at least in some respect a party. Subject-centric views of political life tend to rely on rather wooly ideas about consensus – consensus tends to be used to refer to any and all occasions in which action can be shown to accord to or attune with various background conditions, so that it isn’t even the name for a process of agreement. The relevant value in democratic theory isn’t really consensus anyway (not even in old uncle Habermas), it’s consent, which isn’t the same thing – consent has to be sought or won, and is almost certainly always grudging anyway, but the importance of holding this contrast open – between straw-figures of consensus and ideas of consent – is that it roots us back towards the importance of analysing the relations between ‘the politics of power’ and ‘the politics of support’ (I discuss all of that in Chapter 4 of the book, The Scandal of Consent, in which the dividing line between action-oriented theories and subject-centric theories is located within broadly poststructuralist strands of thought, so that Stuart Hall and Partha Chatterjee are shown to be much better guides to the dynamics of democratic politics than Laclau and Mouffe or Ranciere).

There is a geographical dimension to this strand of my argument too, in case you were wondering. A chain of associations derived from the subject-centric strand of thought has come to define a veritable paradigm of spatial politics in human geography, urban studies, and related fields:

  • the image of political time that contrasts images of settlement and order with moments of interruption and rupture lends itself to a view of proper politics as best exemplified by dramatic disruptions in and of public space;
  • it underwrites the view that proper politics inhabits margins and fissures, offset against mainstreams and the status quo;
  • it is closely associated, as we have seen, with a view of critique as a process of defamiliarization;
  • and it supports and is supported by understandings of how people’s subjectivities are functional effects of mediated systems of malevolent power.

Here then, the long shadow of Althusser’s notion of interpellation is still evident – it is the master-metaphor that one so often still finds governing the political interpretation of all sorts of other theory or theorists, all the way from Foucault to psychoanalysis and various points between. This combination of associations finds expression in an explicitly spatial model of politics as changing-the-subject:

  • subjects are formed, in this paradigm, by being ‘enframed’, by being set-in-place (before a painting, a chain of signifiers, a field of perception, a structure of address, or just immersed in an atmosphere);
  • throw in an orthodox interpretation of the relational formation of subjectivity, in which any collective identity as ‘We’ is constitutively posited against an abjected ‘Them’ (an interpretation of favoured sources that is just wrong), so that subject-formation appears as form of exclusionary territorialization;
  • and you arrive at a framework for analysing any and all practices as scenes for the reproduction of various exclusions and/or always potential sites for the creative reconfiguration of the imaginary identifications before which people remain, in the last instance (as they say), necessarily enthralled.

That, then, is what I am trying to work through, particularly in Part 2 of The Priority of Injustice, although these themes run across the whole thing. As I say, the contrast between action-oriented and subject-centric theories, which you may or may not find too stylized for your own tastes, captures for me something important that allows me to differentiate between strands of thought often bundled together in discussions of poststructuralism, or Continental philosophy, or political ontology – basically, I use this distinction to peel off various thinkers from that broad grouping, and draw them closer to strands of thought working a Habermasian vein with which they are normally not be associated. But I’ll say a little more about that re-arrangement next time.