On The Priority of Injustice IV: Prolegomena to Democratic Inquiry

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.






Concrete utopias

I spent a couple of days earlier this week attending a seminar on ‘the post-political city’. Lots of interesting talks about new forms of political action from around the world, yet all strangely framed by the idea that the world has been progressively ‘de-politicized’. There is something wonderfully self-confirming about the post-political narrative – on the one hand, it bemoans how there isn’t enough ‘proper politics’ these days; then, when you find examples of more or less contentious politics going on, this just confirms that the energy of ‘proper politics’ will always erupt against strategies of de-politicization which are meant to be all pervasive. All of which seems to confirm a suspicion that Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere and others behind the post-political analysis have managed to generalise a particular sort of personal disappointment into a broad claim about de-politicisation as a worldly condition, and in the process managed to get people to think that the only thing that counts as ‘real’ politics is a remarkably narrow strand of the totality of contemporary and historical collective action. I talked about how the post-political theme continues longer trends that can be found in discussions of the concept of ‘the political’, and if I had the time I would have said something a little more constructive about theorising politics ordinarily and how this might inform the analysis of urbanisation and politics. But I didn’t get the chance to spell that bit out – it will have to wait for another occasion.

The one thing I got from the seminar was a thought about why lots of ‘civic’ engagement these days does, in fact, openly describe itself as ‘not political’ – a few speakers mentioned this in passing. There are at least a couple of things going on here, I think: one, saying your campaign/organisation isn’t ‘political’ might be a good way of mobilising and enrolling certain types of people; two, of course, the same line might be an effective way of accessing corridors of power, by avoiding the appearance of being ‘partisan’. So, it’s obvious that this is a strategic line. Interesting, and worth thinking more about, but hardly evidence of the ‘post-political’, not as theorised by the neuvo-communists at least – there is, of course, a website enabling you to actively sign-up to be Post-Political, in this alternative sense. It’s a rhetoric of being anti-politician, while affirming a whole range of spaces of collective engagement beyond party politics and elections – hardly an indication of de-politicization.

The post-political analysis remains tied, of course, to an image of proper politics as all about fundamental ruptures. There is an interesting contrast with the style of political analysis found in Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias, which I managed to read last week sort of accidentally. It’s the culmination of a long-running project on the topic of Real Utopias, that has generated various other edited collections on deepening democracy, basic income, and other topics – all focussed on examples of institutional or organisational experiments in reviving, extending or inventing egalitarian, participatory political forms. It’s resolutely Marxist, but also convincingly egalitarian and democratic in a way in which evades recent ‘communist chic’ literature (it’s also been the subject of an attack by Russell Jacoby in Dissent, which sort of counts as a badge of radical honour I think).

Wright argues that a critical, emancipatory social science should be able to address three issues: an effective critical diagnosis (e.g. what is wrong with capitalism?); a persuasive and justifiable account of workable alternatives; and a convincing theory of transformation. His book is organised around these three dimensions. The book also acknowledges Wright’s attachment to Analytical Marxism (or no bullshit Marxism if you prefer) – it’s actually a rather good advert for this tradition of thought, if that is what it is. This aspect is evident in various ways: a style of functionalist argument in places; a disavowal of the labour theory of value, of course; and perhaps most tellingly, a consistent working through of the what the rationalities of unintended consequences means for visions of radical politics. Apart from the sustained attention to examples of experimental institutional design in democratic politics and economic practices, what is most interesting about Wright’s analysis is how he re-frames the temporality of radical change from these ‘rationalist’ premises – it leads him to reject strongly ‘ruptural’ images of social change, and focus more attention on ‘interstitial’, pre-figurative activities – hence the focus on ‘real utopias’. Not to everyone’s liking, I would suspect, but I find this a rather compelling type of analysis of how serious social theory can challenge the imaginations of political activism in genuinely critical and constructive ways.

Wright’s book is similar in one sense, at least, to Samuel Moyn’s genealogy of the contemporary politics of human rights, The Last Utopia. Moyn probably has a different set of political affiliations to Wright, I would guess. But both focus in on the images of time that underwrite different imaginations of political change. They both locate transformative political action in institutional innovations which are far less than revolutionary too.

Moyn’s argument is that human rights is a very recent political discourse, from the 1970s and after, and not to be conflated with a continuity to ‘rights of man’ discourses. It is, more to the point, he argues, a discourse and movement that is resolutely post-utopian – which is informed by much of the same moral energy that informed previous ‘revolutionary’ models of politics but without the messianic belief. It’s an interesting argument, one informed by a strand of the same thinking about ‘the political’ that the post-political analysis comes from too, but with rather different political, and methodological, resonances – Moyn is a historian of ideas, translator and commentator on that strand of French theory about the political that includes Pierre Rosanvallon and Marcel Gauchet, and Pierre Clastres. In Moyn’s narrative, human rights as a contemporary movement is distinctive because it breaks the link between rights claims and state sovereignty – here is a sense throughout that this might qualify as a ‘post-political’ movement in a certain sense; but on the other hand, the emphasis is on this movement as rather effective organisationally, and not least in shaping global governance and legal regimes. After all, letter-writing might be just as effective a way of staking a claim to public space as protesting in a street or public park.

Moyn is also the editor of a new journal called Humanity, and has a blog too, both of which focus on this same set of issues – I guess the key difference between the ‘post-political’ analysis which sees depoliticization everywhere and this sort of work is the genealogical emphasis on the emergence of new forms of public action, not simply an ontologized lament for the decline of proper politics, understood in an entirely a priori fashion. Moyn has a piece in Dissent earlier this year in which he works through his own thesis about the newness of human rights with reference to the Arab Spring – which he sees as a version of an older, ‘rights-of-man’ style set of claims, shaped by claims for national citizenship and supposing sovereignty of the nation-state. It’s an interesting argument, not sure I wholly believe it, but it makes clear an aspect of the book more generally – the sense that it is the geographical framing of claims that distinguish the content of contemporary human rights discourses from previous discourses of universalism.