Social Justice…or Revolution?
This is the third essay in a series on the Death of Liberal Democracy
In the previous essay in this series, we looked at Liberal Democracy’s inherent violence through the State and our intimate identification with that violence. The execution of two Black men in the United States this last week unfortunately provide poignant examples of that violence.
Such things aren’t supposed to happen within Liberal Democracies, and yet they do. Worse, as Liberal Democracies begin to fail, violence against the oppressed only increases, as well as the deep divisions over its justifications.
Because our understanding of violence is always subjective, whether or not the State killing of Black men is ‘justified’ depends on whether or not we identify more with the victims of that violence, or with the State (and its values, and its agents). A Capitalist is more likely to defend the State’s actions than will those whom they exploit, because police don’t exist to keep Capitalists (most of them white) in line.
In such events, the veneer of Liberal Democracy cracks and fall off, showing something much darker—and much more violent—underneath. And like any other disillusionment, we experience the apparent short-circuit of the mythic and the real of Liberal Democracy as a kind of trauma, one our minds scramble furiously to repair.
Religion is a good parallel. When we experience a crisis of faith, particularly related to the Divine, we have two options. The first is to stare deeply into the sudden Abyss which has opened up, the chasm between what we believed was true—what we shaped our lives around—and what we now see as true.
But that’s really hard, so many opt for the second option: dig in our heels, insist that what we thought was true still is and cling harder to the external rituals of that belief until the doubts and questions go away.
They don’t, of course. And that trauma re-asserts itself in bizarre behaviour, and can produce both fanaticism and fundamentalism.
Relationships are another place where this happens. When you discover that the love you shared with another is no longer there–that you or the person(s) you loved no longer feel love for each other–you again have two options. You can begin the really difficult and painful process of unraveling your relationship, staring deeply into the Abyss of sorrow, loneliness, and separation.
Or, you can pretend nothing is wrong, try harder, and hope love comes back.
In each case, both choices are very, very human. No forsaken lover can really be blamed for their denial. No true believer can be faulted for their desire to return to a more innocent belief. And none of us should feel shame that we’ve clung so long to the myths of Liberal Democracy, even as we learn how violent and destructive it is.
Unfortunately, denial causes more harm than acceptance. The lover who ‘won’t let go’ sinks deeper into misery and unhappyness, worsening the tensions in the relationship. They can become controlling and abusive, blaming the other for their refusal to love. The believer who refuses to embrace the new truth misses the beauty of a deeper relationship to the Divine and may attack others for their ‘impiety,’ sometimes resorting to violence
But what about those who cling to the myth of Liberal Democracy? Who, though they’ve seen the very violence at its core, refuse to admit it and instead try to ‘fix it?’
We need to have a talk.
Utopian Socialism & Social Justice
When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, they were not the first to criticize Capitalism and the State. They also were not just attacking Capitalism, but a rival ideology which promised more than it could ever deliver: Utopian Socialism.
Utopian Socialists criticized many of the same problems as Communists and Anarchists in the 18th and 19th century. But rather than advocate an overthrow of the State and a seizure of the factories from their owners (‘the means of production’), they thought that Liberal Democratic governments could be reformed through education and enlightenment. With enough time and effort, they reasoned, Capital would become less violent, wealth would become more equitably shared, and class and race divisions would eventually just fade away.
To get to such a point, Utopian Socialists tried to educate the masses on right behaviour. They reasoned that most of the problems of society came from ignorance, and if people only understood how their actions hurt others (including the actions of rulers and Capitalists), humanity would eventually become free and peaceful. In essence, once enough people changed their morals—replacing hate with tolerance, altruism for greed, solidarity for individualism—we would finally become equal.
Marx and Engels disagreed.
The primary argument against Utopian Socialism, from both Anarchists and Communists, was that the State would never relinquish power willingly. More so, the State existed to do the bidding of the Capitalists; without revolt, no amount of incremental change would ever suffice, because Capitalists always exert more power through their wealth.
If Utopian Socialism sounds a little familiar, it should. It never actually went away, but has taken many new names for itself. In the United States, for example, it’s been known as Progressivism. In many European countries, it’s called Democratic Socialism. And in most English-speaking countries in the world now, it’s called Social Justice.
And it’s failed.
The Limits of Social Justice
Like Utopian Socialism, Social Justice attempts to educate the masses on the causes and results of inequality in order to eradicate it. They believe that, once people understand that they are being racist, sexist, homophobic, fat-phobic, trans-phobic, misogynist, privileged, ableist, colonialist, white, classist, xenophobic, nationalist, and elitist, they will eventually stop.
By educating the masses about these things, Social Justice then aims to transform society into something more fair and just. If enough people understand these problems and seek to fix them, they can then transform the institutions (including the State) that benefit from these ills into something that will uphold equality.
There is a problem, of course: for as many people who embrace Social Justice and attempt to adjust their actions, there are more people who answer such complaints with, “no. I’m not.”
More so, those who wish to continue their behavior have all sorts of arguments in their defense. A person who does not want to be around trans people, for instance, may invoke religion (be it Christian Fundamentalism or Dianic Witchcraft), or safety, or the right to choose whom they associate with. An institution that believes same-sex relationships are immoral might likewise invoke ‘religious freedom’ as a defense.
In fact, Social Justice is a double-edged blade. New Right Heathen and polytheist theorists invoke the same arguments used to defend indigenous, First Nations, and other oppressed peoples to defend their own oppressive ideologies. Stephen McNallen and his fellow racists, for instance, insist that their ‘indigenous European culture’ deserves the same protections as others, and thus they should be able to exclude people of non-European descent from their groups.
While this may seem like a mere cynical attempt to hijack Social Justice language, it isn’t. The morality inherent to Social Justice is subjective and not actually part of its framework; people with opposing moral views can easily use the same framework.
There’s a long explanation for this, but here’s the short version: since Social Justice does not directly attack the foundations of inequality (Capitalism and the State), the original goal no longer matters. Once untethered from that goal, it becomes like a religion empty of its gods, or a relationship where love has died.
To understand more how this happened, we need to look more at Social Justice and its relationship to the State and Capital.
Social Justice and the Capitalist State
Neither Utopian Socialism nor Social Justice rely on education as the sole means of affecting social change. Instead, both attempt to increase the rights recognised and granted by the State in order to increase equality and enshrine a more just morality. Protections for disabled people, ethnic, religious, and racial minorities, anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime legislation and social welfare programs are all strategies used to correct inequalities within Liberal Democracy and move towards a more just and equal society.
The problem? This strategy requires a violent and powerful State.
As described in the ‘social contract’ which Hobbes outlines in Leviathan, Liberal Democracies offer rights and protections to their citizens in return for the consent to rule. Those rights are then guaranteed and enforced through State violence, whether through the judicial system or military and police actions.
Unfortunately, using the apparatus of the State (and its violence) to create the sort of equality that the Social Justice framework demands gives more legitimacy to the State. The State then becomes empowered to use its violence (be that direct or indirect) to enact the will of the people in cases of discrimination, punishing individuals and businesses who, for instance, refuse to cater gay weddings, provide accommodations for wheelchair users, or hire Black people.
I use those three examples for a reason, as each involves Capitalism. First, though, let’s be clear:
Each of those scenarios are sites of inequality—no Marxist, Anarchist, or Social Justice advocate would disagree here.
We should also dismantle the Free Market/libertarian argument against such interventions, which asserts government should not interfere with the demands of Capitalism. This argument insists that the Market should decide whether the actions of those businesses are just, rather than the State. For them, The Market serves as a proxy for the divine mandate of the people. They reason that businesses which discriminate against others would fail because of loss of profit, and thus Capitalists would thus be more ‘moral’ out of self-interest.
Besides relying on religious faith in the Market, this argument also ignores the power (including State power) that Capitalists have over those without Capital. Most laws within Liberal Democracy exist to protect property and business, and the police exist to enforce these. That is, the Capitalist already wields State power, and isn’t eager to see this challenged.
Social Justice doesn’t question State power. Instead, when moral arguments regarding tolerance and acceptance fail to correct oppression, Social Justice demands that the State intervene. This State intervention does work, as least for a little while (as in desegregation in the American South, hate-crime laws in most Liberal Democracies, etc.). Unfortunately, by demanding these guarantees of rights (and the punishment of those who violate them), Social Justice empowers the State to enact more violence.
Thus, the police who arrest perpetrators of hate crimes are also police who kill Black men during traffic stops, the same courts which try cases of discrimination also prosecute homeless people for vagrancy. The State becomes more powerful through our reliance on it, and we find ourselves in a tug-of-war over control of State violence. We can’t win, because the State cannot exist without the Capitalists who fund it. As Audre Lorde pointed out:
…the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.
Capital has its own logic, one that transcends and transforms the values of the individual Capitalist. Capital’s primary demand is profit, and in order to profit, the Capitalist must exploit others. Capitalists must employ others to work for them at wages lower than the amount they sell the results of that labor for. In order to maintain this relationship of economic exploitation, there must also be hierarchy, with the owner(s) at the top and the workers at the bottom.
Hierarchy and exploitation spread throughout all other relations within Capitalist societies. Your boss is never ‘your equal,’ because your boss will always have more Authority (and money!) than you. Further, the boss must be able to maintain inequality in order to profit. As a result, even the most anti-racist and pro-Social Justice Capitalist can find themselves employing State violence to protect their Capital, calling the police when a homeless, Black, or other poor person steals from them.
Expand this use of State violence from the individual small Capitalist to an entire society, and you can see how the interests of Capital oppose the goals of equality espoused by Social Justice.
But without attacking Capital, Social Justice can only rely on the same State as the Capitalist in order to repair the damage Capitalism causes. Welfare, affirmative action, housing assistance, education grants—all these exist to lessen the damage of Capitalism, but none of them ever succeed in create equality precisely because Capitalism always requires inequality to function.
Also, everything the State does (including welfare, etc.) is paid for by taxation. The only way for the State to derive enough taxes to fund these programs is to have a thriving economy, with Capitalists reaping enough profits to bear the burden of taxation. Thus, the State is used both to fix the problems caused by Capitalism while also encouraging more Capitalism, with one hand repairing only some of the damage that it causes with the other hand.
Unfortunately, Social Justice enables this process.
Social Justice has also relied on the support of Capitalists in order to fight inequality. While recognition of gay partnerships and increased access for disabled people by large corporations is certainly a good thing, the ‘victories’ of such support then replace the criticism of the corporations themselves and enable those Capitalists to exploit others without question. Worst of all, it then creates a new dynamic of identity politics which both State and Capital are very good at exploiting.
Identity Politics and the Exploitation of the WorldThe United States Military recently joined the rest of the ‘civilized world’ (that is, Liberal Democracies) by allowing homosexuals to ‘serve’ openly and women to ‘serve’ in combat. It was hailed as a victory for Social Justice and equality by many gays and Feminists, seen as progress and the victory of tolerance over inequality.
An Arab woman who loses her children and husband to the bullets of an American lesbian soldier probably won’t see this as a victory of equality.
If this sounds harsh, good. We must be harsh in order to cut through the manipulation of our identities by the State.
During the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, many gay men and feminists called for support of these military actions on behalf of the gays and women in those countries, employing a narrative of Liberal Democracy versus the uncivilized (i.e.; Muslim) world. That same narrative repeats today—calls for stricter policies against immigrants to protect gays and women (especially after the Orlando massacre), relentlessly recycled news stories on the slaughter of gays by Daesh, calls by polytheists for the US military to send more troops to the Iraq to support Yezidis and stop the destruction of ancient sacred sites.
In all those cases, identity becomes a weapon of the Liberal Democratic State to gain consent for more violence, more conquest, more slaughter.
By refusing to attack the State and Capital directly and instead focusing on incremental change, Social Justice fails to challenge the global inequality of Liberal Democracy. As a result, we find ourselves as women fighting for equal pay from corporations which employ near-slave labor of other women, gays celebrating the ‘right’ to become soldiers in imperialist wars and killing other gays, and many other contradictory positions which Liberal Democracy is happy to exploit.
This isn’t to say that multiple inequalities cannot be fought at once. But because Social Justice doesn’t challenge Capital and relies on the State to achieve its goals, it helps the State turn our identity against us and make us complicit in the very exploitation it enacts.
Was this the intention of Social Justice? No. But it is its fatal flaw, and why it cannot liberate any of us.
And for each new right and protection gained by a minority in a Liberal Democracy, we become hostages to the State.
Moralism versus Revolution
The goals of Social Justice are good goals, but they cannot be accomplished without dismantling Liberal Democracy. And therein’s the problem, because if Liberal Democracy falls, the rights, protections, guarantees, and equality gained through Social Justice are directly threatened.
Thus, we cannot challenge its violent core because we rely on that State for our protection, and we fear what may come after.
It’s for this reason so many people in the U.K are terrified of what will come after Brexit, and they should be. It’s for this reason so many people in the United States are terrified of how much more violence there will be against Blacks and other minorities if the State is led by the next likely president.
And in the United States as I write, more Black men have been killed by agents of the State. Protests are arising everywhere, but some of the narrative has finally begun to shift away from the Social Justice framework.
This is a very good sign.
For decades, the primary tactic to address police slaughter of Black people has been to demand better training and education of police, as well as arrest and conviction of the police officers. The hope has been that police needed only more morality and more checks on their power in order not to be so violent.
Such a strategy ignores the role of police as agents of State violence, aiming instead to correct an apparent malfunction of an otherwise necessary machine This strategy has failed, and not because the millions of people who have protested against these deaths and demanded accountability didn’t try.
The system isn’t malfunctioning at all—it’s working precisely as it is supposed to.
Black people are criminalized in the United States not because Americans haven’t adopted the right morality, but because police exist to enforce the will of the State and the Capitalists who support it. The system oppresses Black people because it needs to.
If Black people were ever truly granted full equality under Liberal Democracy, if Racism were ever to fade away, Capitalism would go into crisis. Racial difference keeps the poor fighting each other rather than fighting the wealthy; as long as Blacks are considered dangerous and less worthy of life than whites, the white poor and working class will stay on the side of the white Capitalists and white State.
The same is true for immigrants, particularly in Europe. If European-born workers and immigrant workers were ever to unite, no amount of State violence could ever protect the Capitalist.
Because Social Justice fights only the symptoms of Capitalism, because it attempts to change society through morality and State power, it plays perfectly into the hands of Liberal Democracy. White heterosexual cis-males are definitely privileged by most Liberal Democracies; unfortunately, by attacking their privilege we cannot actually eradicate the source. Privilege doesn’t derive from those, it derives from the State, and the State is more than eager to grant out piecemeal rights and privileges in return for our embrace of the Liberal Democratic State.
As in South Africa under Apartheid, Liberal Democracies are founded upon unequal relations. Whites there enjoyed immense benefits and wealth at the expense of the majority Black population, and even those who believed Apartheid was immoral still feared what might come after. Would the oppressed Blacks rise up and slaughter all the whites? Would the Blacks in turn do the exact same things to whites as was done to them?
Because of the Truth&Reconciliation movement, the feared massacre didn’t happen. But South Africa was not a massive imperial power, exploiting millions outside of its borders, extracting their wealth and bombing their villages to pieces. The same cannot be said of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, or any of the other large Liberal Democracies. If the oppressed people within those countries don’t rise up, there are many more outside waiting to demand justice, too.
In each of these countries, the promise of an eventual equal society has proven false. Equality is impossible under Capitalism, and even as we in those countries try to gain more rights, we help Liberal Democracy destroy the lives of others.
Besides, decades and centuries of struggle to gain equality for minorities are now becoming reversed, and the State is increasing its violence: both abroad with its endless wars in oil-rich nations and within its borders against Blacks and immigrants, dissidents and the poor.
Liberal Democracy is dying, and Social Justice can’t fix it.
Moving On From Social Justice
For most who cling to the Social Justice framework, I’m not really telling you anything new.
We already knew this. We’ve known this for awhile, but have been in denial. Like noticing that love no longer leaps between ourselves and a partner, we’ve not quite wanted to admit it. Like when we have a crisis of faith, we haven’t been quite certain what to do next.
It’s okay. We’re human.
But it’s time to move on. We need to look into that Abyss waiting for us. Just like clinging too long to a lover who no longer loves us, just like holding too tightly to the forms of a religion long after it becomes false, insisting that Liberal Democracy can be reformed will only cause more damage, more hurt, more sorrow.
Not moving on from the promise of Social Justice is already making us awful. Just like the religious person who tries to rekindle their lost faith by blaming infidels, we can find ourselves crippled by blaming other people’s privilege for our inability to act. And just as the lover in denial may begin to hate the person they once loved, we can find ourselves hating the very people who want to build an equal society with us.
And in both cases, the greatest loss is our own magic, our own power. The faith we once had can be had again, but this time not built on illusion and priests who knew no more about the divine than we do. The love which drove us to want to change the world will not die, but we will find a new way of loving that can last.
We can do this, and we must do it soon. We’re not the only ones noticing Liberal Democracy is dying.
And they’re more prepared than we are.
Next: The Resurgence of the Fascist Right
Rhyd is the co-founder and managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s usually in a city by the Salish sea in occupied Duwamish territory, but he’s currently trekking about Europe for the next three months. His most recent book is A Kindness of Ravens, and you can follow his adventures at: PAGANARCH.
Rhyd Wildermuth’s essay, “We Are The Rude,” is featured in A Beautiful Resistance: The Fire is Here.