Autumn Number 2019

Towards Justice

In Search of Ideals

Sanjeeb Mukherjee

Broadly, there are four kinds of ideals now existing. The first is pre-modern, largely religious and the second is modern liberal and democratic ideals and third, are socialist ones. Finally, faced with an impending environmental disaster new ideals are emerging and old ones being reformulated to address this age of the Anthropocene. Let us now try to compose a set of ideals to guide the fight for a just future.

People are social beings and live in society. Hence the organisation of society or the terms of social cooperation is the fundamental basis of justice. Society is a gigantic system of social cooperation between individuals and groups in different sectors of social and economic life and also across sectors and between societies on a global scale, The terms of cooperation are often neither fair nor are people freely engaged in them. Conquest and violence leads to the breakdown of cooperation. Following defeat people are forced to cooperate and that in turn is later legitimised. People have also rebelled and resisted against unfair terms of social cooperation.

Modern societies involve complex webs of cooperation and all social, economic, cultural and intellectual production is the product of expansive layers of social cooperation. In fact, human beings are the products of such cooperation; they have no independent existence outside society. They are socially constituted selves. Hence, the idea that society is the product of a social contract entered into by pre-existing free individuals is a legitimising myth for a society driven by the centrality of the idea of ownership and self interest. Modern society is founded on the idea of such a self-owning person, who by the use of his labour and mind can acquire private property over that part of nature which he brings under his dominion by cultivation. This again is legitimised by the assumption that nature is bountiful and that it exists for man to use and own.

In the above scheme of things the priority of society and social cooperation is denied. In fact, all social cooperation is redefined as a market like transaction where there is a free exchange between individuals trying to maximise their interests. It is important to distinguish between a contractual relation between individuals and social cooperation, where individual gain is not the principal motive of human engagement. Reciprocity and sharing based on the ethics of care and concern is totally denied in the contractual view of society. However, contrary to the official ideology, starting from the family to the nation one finds the centrality of the ethics of caring and sharing.

However, the terms of social cooperation is more often, than not, unfair and unequal and entered in conditions of unfreedom due to the unequal structures of power, wealth, knowledge and status. Thus a set of fundamental principles or ideals are necessary to create fair, free and equal terms of social cooperation for, building a society based on justice.

The ideal of justice has had a universal appeal. However, the contents of this ideal has changed over time and circumstances. Given the global situation in the ideal of justice can be defined? It is a time of extreme inequality, deprivation and an unsustainable economic model, which is destroying the planet and all forms of life itself.

There have been broadly, two ways of defining the ideal of justice. Socialists have privileged the property question and liberals and democrats have given priority to the importance of the individual's rights to life, liberty and equality. These rights have remained formal and not substantial and they hold the individual solely responsible for actualising their rights. Socialists, on the other hand have reduced the question of justice to the property question and argue that if private property is abolished and the working classes capture state power justice and democracy would flourish. Both these articulations of justice have proved to be one-sided and limited.

There are two fundamental bases of property, one acquired from nature and the other the product of human endeavour, primarily, labour, knowledge, organisation and other fatuities. How can one legitimise private property over any part or product of nature? The liberal theory of property is based on the assumption that nature is bountiful, that is, there is enough for everybody Secondly, it places humans at the centre of the universe and hence nature is seen as created for human use and enjoyment. From these assumptions, liberals argue that through the application of human mind and labour on nature whatever products are acquired can rightfully be owned by the person who expended his efforts, for example the animals he hunts or the fruits he gathers. Liberals make another crucial move. Since nature is bountiful, any person who cultivates a piece of land can claim rightful property rights over it. Furthermore, through inheritance and market exchanges property rights are reproduced and transferred.

Today it is common knowledge that nature, far from being bountiful, is on the verge of a disaster due to its irresponsible use exclusively for humans.

All human production of material or cultural or intellectual goods are the result of social cooperation and the use of the common planet and hence the very idea of private property is problematic. Of course, individuals have to be rewarded for their work and even hold personal property to ensure their security. Knowledge now is one of the driving force of economic production, but this knowledge is the result of immense social cooperation and property over intellectual or cultural goods too have to be questioned.

Human rights are central to the ideal of justice, especially the rights to life, liberty and equality. These rights can only be meaningful if people actually enjoy these rights by having equal access to all the resources, material and cultural, necessary for human flourishing.

Ideals are often abstract and pay no attention to what happened in history. Human history is grounded on building structures of injustice, inequality, oppression and exploitation, both within and between societies and states. Present is constituted by history and hence ideal of justice must redress historical injustices caused by colonialism, imperialism as well as local structures of caste, gender and class.

The greatest failure of the Marxist tradition has been on the question of democracy. Dictatorship of the proletariat as a higher form of democracy has proved to be worse than liberal democracies. Unfortunately, the left has conflated liberalism with democracy. Liberalism unabashedly upholds the individual's rights to freedom, equality before the law and private property, including a conception of the self as an atomic and self-owning and self-interest pursuing being. Democracy has challenged the limits of liberalism by giving primacy to the idea of equality in a more substantial sense—ranging from equality of opportunity and equal right of all to flourish fully. Secondly, democracy has created a new agent other than the liberal individual. It's the idea of the people as a collective sovereign who has the right to govern itself or establish self-rule directly or indirectly through their elected representatives. Thirdly, individuals and groups have the right to dissent, protest and the freedom to hold different views and live their own lives the way they want as long as others' rights are not violated. Finally, in case power is usurped or if democracy is subverted by the rulers then the people have the right to disobey and even rebel against it to reestablish democracy and equal rights. Democracy upholds equal rights and justice for all and hence theoretically private property is not central to the idea of democracy unlike liberalism and capitalism.

However, democracy under liberal capitalism has been tamed to uphold liberal bourgeois principles and legitimise it by getting popular consent through elections. The radical potential of democracy has to be reclaimed by the people by taking on the responsibility of participating in the democratic process regularly and actively; by making democracy more representative of the diversities existing in any society and by building and defending autonomous public institutions like the media and universities, among others.

Today, knowledge and. technology has been used by states to control and discipline populations through its possession and use of big data and surveillance. Popular struggles must counter this process by reversing the gaze, that is, put all public officials under continuous surveillance to ensure that they do not abuse their power. The democratic space has to be reclaimed by the people and institutionally deepen and enrich it.

Central to the idea of democracy is non-violence for it is a process based on informed public debate and not coercion or hatred, but respect and tolerance towards others. History has shown the power of non-violent struggles in defeating powerful empires. Violence begets more violence and even legitimises the state's use of power to curb violence. Violence and hate justifies the state to arm itself in the name of defending the nation. Global peace is an imperative today.

One central lesson of the 20th century has been the failure of all political parties, both of the left and other persuasions to either build socialism or represent the people under a democratic order. Parties have come to usurp power and de-activate the people. They have retained their power by getting popular consent and are not any serious representative of the people. Now experts and modern technology do the business of ruling and governing, hollowing out the very essence of democracy.

As a reaction of the failure of political parties new forms of activism have emerged outside the frame of parties, like civil society organisations, people's movements and even NGOs. This leads to one dimensional radicalism, for most of them focus on a single Issue and completely dissociate themselves from the formal democratic process. It results in the further impoverishment of the fragile democratic arena and its take-over by criminals and corporates. Armed revolutionaries by declaring war against the state give it an excuse to further erode democratic rights.

The central importance of democracy in any kind of politics, revolutionary or otherwise is now part of  commonsense. So especially in countries like India where there is a functioning .democracy, however imperfect it might be, it has to be strengthened rather than attacked or abandoned. The people's struggle must reclaim the democratic space for themselves to build a better and more just world here and now rather than wait for the revolution to happen.

Today, more than ever before, people need revolutionary changes, not only to fight capitalism but also to ensure the very survival of the human race and other forms of life. Then, what is to be done to bring about such revolutionary changes?

20th century idea of revolution was that of an event, marked by the transfer of state power from the hands of one class to another. In the case of the socialist revolution the proletariat was to take power at the end of a long battle led by the communist party. Treating revolution as an event divided historical time into two periods—one before and the other after the revolution, which inaugurates socialism. It then becomes the primary task of the communist party led state to defend the revolution from its enemies and build socialism under its direction. Socialism is seen as some kind of an essence which unfolds itself armed for the knowledge of it by the party. Socialist ideals are given a definitive content aid form by the ideology enunciated by the party. It leads to the establishment of a party state or partyarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of the party bureaucracy and in the absence of any freedom or democracy the restoration of capitalism is almost a seamless process, unmarked by any dissent, debate or protest.

The central lesson of the socialists experience is to re-imagine the revolution as a long on-going process, when revolutionary changes happen in different spheres in different moments of time, ultimately leading to the creation of a new society. The best example of such revolutionary changes in a particular sphere was Marx's theories in the world of ideas under capitalism. Or the democratic struggles leading to the establishment of democratic constitutions with equal rights for all. In other words, driven by ideals of justice and democracy one must work towards bringing about fundamental changes in the very terms of social cooperation existing in any society as well as in different sectors of society.

Global capitalism today is driven by knowledge and technology and a large part of it is willingly provided by the third world free of cost. In other words, the primitive accumulation of Capital today is still sourced from countries like India. The only difference is that force or violence is no longer used, people freely offer their knowledge and knowledge based services free of cost and voluntarily, and with considerable pride, to drive and service global capitalism and provide for capital accumulation.

Hence any project of justice and democracy as ideals for building a new society will have to question the terms of social cooperation between knowledge, labour and nature and intervene to re-frame these fundamental relationships.

Global capitalism today has geographically dispersed into a vast chain of global first world enclaves primarily centred around metropolitan cities around the world, including India. The rest is a vast hinterland serving their needs and providing cheap labour, natural resources and providing a market. Nation-states are the pivots who hold this global system together.

If radicals once care to read the Indian Constitution they will find it to contain a radical democratic potential, especially the chapters on fundamental rights and directive principles.

Left and democratic politics in India is geared to providing relief—loan relief, free power, doles etc. instead, if one focuses on questioning the fundamental terms of social cooperation and fight for substantial reforms they will have a long term revolutionary impact.

A new radical democratic politics to create a just world has to create new forms and languages of protest and resistance. These forms are not merely instruments for doing the work efficiently, rather they should embody the new world people want to build. And it should not only be just and democratic it should also be beautiful. Ethics and aesthetics are integral to any alternative politics.

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Autumn Number 2019
Vol. 52, No. 13 - 16, Sep 29 - October 26, 2019