The Frontiers of Justice

August 8, 2015

In The Frontiers of Justice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that under neoliberal governments like ours, there are four major groups of persons who are excluded from recourse to the justice system by virtue of their lack of means (money to bring a case in court) and/or lack of voice (ability to reason with a court/right to stand before a court). These are children, the disabled, non-citizens, and animals.

This is an important book to me, and one I mention often in my blog. Lately I’ve been wondering whether these frontiers of justice are really a product of neoliberalism. Or are they more deeply ingrained than that in human behavior? Do they in turn shape human behavior, through childhood psychology? It seems to me that these groups have always been at a political and social disadvantage, regardless of what system of government we’re talking about.

This brings up two questions. The first is, what is neoliberalism? The core values of neoliberalism are individualism, private ownership and freedom of choice. Under this regime, social space is a form of market capital, cultural resources and political voice (via the mass media) have been privatized, inequality levels are high, and consumption rates have everything to do with willingness to pay and competition over paid work. Nussbaum argues that it is through a fee-for-service justice system and through doubts in their capacity to reason that children, the disabled and animals are denied the ability to enforce their rights in court, whereas non-citizens are simply denied the right to bring cases in court.

The second question is, how would we treat children, the disabled, non-citizens and animals if ours were not a neoliberal regime? It seems to me that even under conditions of anarchy, maybe especially under conditions of anarchy, these groups would get the short end of the stick. As human animals, we have limited patience with our own offspring and less with those of other people. Towards disabled kin, we have moderate sympathy – towards disabled strangers, we have little to none. Outsiders to our social groups are greeted with skepticism or outright hostility, depending on how well they have acculturated to our norms (from language use to attitudes and beliefs). And animals are either dinner, personal property or an at-large nuisance – even those we think of as family are excluded from the consolations of language use and the rights that come with it.


If these frontiers of justice are in our animal nature, and not a product of our social contract, how do these boundaries shape us as individuals? Object relations theory seems to scratch the surface of this question, with its emphasis on the contingency of infant emotional life on the attentions of the mother. Impatience with the willfulness of their own children is the natural pressure parents exert (without any special training in how to teach children to grow up), and once they have internalized adult habits and come of age, they are sent away to fend for themselves. Later, I’ll look at Freud’s theory of child psychology in this context of actual (not merely imagined) parental hostility towards the developing child.

Returning to the first question, is there really anything about neoliberalism that would lead us to exclude non-citizens from the courts? Here I am inclined to turn to Jane Jacobs again, and look at the two codes of conduct described in Systems of Survival, one more similar to traditional conservative politics in America, and the other more characteristic of liberalism. But this time I would argue that they blur together, rather than competing for political dominance. If neoliberalism were like the market-oriented code of conduct Jacobs describes, it would protect the rights of strangers and aliens and promote multiculturalism. I would argue that it does not, and that instead, this moral question is ceded to the hierarchical code of conduct that stands in opposition to commercial norms, one in which in-group loyalty is paramount.

Neoliberalism is often compared with neoconservatism, but some would say they are two sides of the same coin. The centrist policies of the Democratic party and the radicalism of the Republican party have produced a situation in which domestic politics are, by and large, neoliberal and foreign policy is neoconservative, even when a Democrat is in the White House. Neoconservatism has less to do with individualism and more to do with unilateralism. This co-existence of market-oriented values in the domestic sphere and hierarchical values in the international sphere mirrors what Jane Jacobs describes as the natural symbiotic relationship between market norms and hierarchical regimes. (But it also represents a type of perverse hybrid that she describes as a recipe for corruption. I’ll return to the topic of perverse hybrids later.) War powers are used to open markets and break up cartels, all in the name of the peacetime values of freedom, individualism and private profit.

Some commentators describe this neoliberal hegemony as a depoliticization of the public sphere, and to understand this critique, you have to compare neoliberalism and neoconservatism with their ideological opposition, contemporary Western communism. The hallmark of communist regimes is a top-down redistributive policy on property ownership, as opposed to private ownership of capital and competition over work, housing, food and ultimately, profit. To say neoliberalism depoliticizes public life is to say that politics is, fundamentally, the legal negotiation of class conflict, and that neoliberalism deprives the poor of their negotiating power.


There are two other major points of departure between communism and neoconservatism: the close regulation of daily life, breaking up traditional power structures within family units, and the endorsement of universal suffrage regardless of race (which, when it comes to Palestine, leads neoconservatives to accuse the radical left of anti-Semitism). Here I am talking about communism in Western democracies, not in China or Cuba, where state censorship is also an important point of departure from neoliberalism (to be compared with market-oriented control of the mass media).

Under neoliberalism, racial discrimination is most apparent in the housing market, where it is enforced by private associations colluding to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods in a formal strategy largely ignored by public agencies responsible for upholding civil rights. This is the regressive side of liberalism, promoting freedom of choice (the opportunity to live in a predominately white suburb) for an elite minority on a willingness-to-pay basis. This racist elitism is normalized in national culture, and ‘minorities’ are encouraged by entertainment/advertising media to identify with and compare themselves to white role models, and to associate minority status with being lower class, poorly educated and/or a criminal.

The neoconservative police state’s use of racial profiling and indiscriminate deportation policies, and the neoconservative foreign policy administration’s tendency to equate Arab race/Islam with terrorism, both function as scapegoating behaviors on an irrational level, fostering black-and-white thinking about group loyalties and aversion to multiculturalism and international law. Neoconservatism, at its most basic, is an us-versus-them mentality in which U.S. national interests and preconceptions trump international diplomacy and military force is a first, rather than a last, resort. Outsiders (and, arguably, ‘minorities’) are viewed with contempt or fear, rather than curiosity and admiration.

But perhaps it is through the exclusion of ‘outsiders’, the disabled, children and other animals that neoliberalism is so atomizing, lonely and monotonic. Competition over resources is a never-ending struggle under this regime, and cultural resources are monopolized by a remote elite (from the privatization of Google to the total control of local news coverage by Fox). The agenda of this elite is remote from daily life (minority status now belongs to whites in the census), and tied to a foreign policy agenda that has more to do with direct subsidies than with imperialistic resource extraction. Patronage politics serves a tiny sector of special interest groups and a thinly stretched, poorly compensated military, while the rest of the 99% are at the mercy of the market.

From this point of view, neoliberalism and neoconservatism certainly don’t co-exist in a system of checks and balances – the most obvious feature of this political unity is that it is unsustainable. The real question is, could an alternative system of government expand the frontiers of justice? Or are they simply in our nature?

Affinity and dissent

July 29, 2015

Strongly hierarchical cultures prize consistency and loyalty above independent thinking and creativity. They are stereotypically hide-bound in their resistance to novelty and dissent. This is a constant source of frustration to well-meaning bureaucrats and scientists in large public institutions. So what would explain this pattern of behavior?

If you map object relations theory onto organizational behavior patterns, you can see that the glue that holds a hierarchical organization together is affinity. Mature levels of affinity that can tolerate disappointment (and even censure) are cultivated through patronage and compliance checks, so that subordinates take for granted the correctness and support of their supervisors. You could say they identify with their superiors emotionally the way a dependent child identifies with a parent, internalizing a sense of guilt when they find themselves at odds with their organization’s rules and expectations.

Jane Jacobs argues in Systems of Survival that there are market-oriented cultures that diverge from this model, prizing creativity and intellectual independence above loyalty and generosity. But even firms that are market-oriented in structure can have hierarchical internal cultures that resist independent thinking and suppress dissent. A family business can be very conservative in its values, prone to patronage politics and hierarchical modes of thinking. The business where I work now is a good example of this.

Why is dissent and rule-changing such a painstaking process? In the modern world, democratic decision-making is the norm, and almost all laws and statutes are subject to public discourse and review. But in practice, organizational change is a cumbersome process characterized by high levels of risk and resistance.

To answer this question, you might ask, what conditions foster and encourage dissent? Jacobs would argue that these are market conditions, those governed by strong expectations of honesty and autonomy, where contracts are entered into freely and in good faith. She characterizes markets as naturally open to diversity, in which collaboration among strangers and aliens is the norm. In contrast, hierarchical organizations are closed systems, competitive and secretive with outsiders, and their internal relationships are characterized by top-down dependencies rather than egalitarianism and autonomy.


What, then, are the psychosocial conditions that foster and encourage dissent? They must be characterized by horizontal rather than vertical distributions of status, that is, peer-to-peer relationships. Friendships as opposed to families, colleagues as opposed to supervisors and subordinates, acquaintances as opposed to authority figures.

And there is an important element of trust involved in mobilizing dissent. For creative solutions to arise from independent thinking, there has to be a sense of confidence in the intentions and credibility of the innovator. Here the tension between affinity and dissent is at its most paradoxical. Because the strong bonds of affinity in hierarchical organizations impose a sense of guilt on those who dissent, but in the absence of trust, dissent would go nowhere.

This is perhaps related to the argument Jacobs makes that hierarchical and market-oriented cultures are deeply symbiotic. Perhaps a market-oriented culture nested within a hierarchical society could tap into a sense of affinity just strong enough to inspire trust, but not intense enough to smother dissent. In the same way, a hierarchical organizational culture nested within a market-oriented business model is reluctantly susceptible to organizational change – there are a few important changes going on where I work that show how successful dissent can be when market pressures are in play.

The implications for the study of neoliberalism and Martha Nussbaum’s ideas about the frontiers of justice are interesting. I’ll try to circle back to the topic of trust in market-oriented relationships at some point, to explore how trade and affinity are related. In my earlier concept map of aggression and love labors, I situated commerce in a quadrant governed by rational decision-making and love, as opposed to irrational decision making and aggression. That’s not how I typically think of commerce, but that’s the direction Systems of Survival is leading me in as I explore aggression theory in connection with the Cultural Cognition Project now.

In particular, I want to look at risk-perception as a cultural cognition phenomenon that is governed by both issues of affinity and measures of the credibility of dissent. I want to build on this thought-provoking paper from the Cultural Cognition Project in situating risk communication in a neoliberal state where liberalism is the ostensible ethos of public discourse, but (and this is something the CCP does not adequately address) hierarchically-oriented mega-firms play a decisive role in programming the mass media and setting the policy agenda.

Hand-offs and the attention economy

July 5, 2015

The cruelty of bystander indifference is a concept I spent a lot of time writing about last year and the year before that, and this year I think my understanding of the concept is a little more mature. But only a little bit. From my readings on Object Relations Theory, I would have to say there was something infantile about my levels of existential angst at that time and the black-and-white thinking I directed at other people, depending on whether or not they appeared to be meeting my needs. Now I feel more restraint about complaining, but when I sit down to write, the themes are often the same.

The resolution of those abandonment fears into a sense of self-sufficiency makes blogging regularly possible again, at least. I had gotten too strident to be able to stand the sound of my own voice for a while there.

Returning to the huge volume of notes I accumulated while I was unemployed, I found a passage that needs no revision to reflect what I understand about empathy and its limitations now. It was a response to a scene with Hekabe and Agamemnon by Euripides, in which the enslaved queen is entreating the same conquering king whose men just ordered the death of her daughter (as a funeral sacrifice for Achilles) for justice concerning the death of one of her sons.

Perhaps we secretly fear embarrassment when distracted, but unexpectedly confronted with a pain or an injustice that is not fleeting. There is always eventually the problem of needing a decent exit.

In this respect, it’s as if the ancient directives not to spurn the needs of lepers are about not turning your back on those who reveal a pain no one can relieve, asking only that you acknowledge the reality that their pain is a source of distress that they cannot face alone, given an opportunity to solicit understanding kindness from someone who means them well.

I remember a certain look that crossed my face while I was reading this scene. I suddenly sat back against a concrete bench where I was reading in the shade and felt my face fall, deeply to the left and less deeply to the right, the deepest frown I have ever felt. It is the only time I have had a palpable epiphany while reading anything at all. I look for that frown sometimes in the expressions of an actor, but I have never seen one like it yet.

The line was, “Shit.
No mortal exists who is free.”

Now I find myself as unsympathetic as they come. I work in a neighborhood where attitudes are brash and abrasive, and I sell meat even though I’ve resolved not to eat meat or milk or eggs myself. I cajole people to buy even more of it, and most of my customers are obese. Many of them, judging from their work clothes or the state of their cars, frankly can’t afford our prices, and I’m usually glib with them about the sticker shock. It’s especially distasteful when an immigrant child tricks her grandmother into ordering $20 worth of food, seeing the shock on their faces when they realize how small the portions are for that amount of money.

At any rate, it’s a good laboratory for studying aggression theory. Right now I’m putting off further work on that until I’ve had time to read more myths – I want to try something I’m calling “queering Freud” but I want to ground it in an analysis of actual mythology, since Freud’s theory hinged on an interpretation of myth.

And the long walk to and from work gives me a lot of time to reflect on abstract ideas and enjoy the outdoors.

I noticed something surprising on my way to work earlier this week. There’s something ugly about vulnerability to me now. Ugly but sensitive, poignantly alive, so that I feel a pang of longing when I notice it, while at the same time I feel profoundly repulsed.


I think it’s because of the coarseness of relationships where I work now. The cramped workspace, the constant sense of urgency, the friction with new management and the clumsiness of the hand-offs from top to bottom in the chain of command. I used to wonder why people who worked there laughed so much at their frustrations instead of addressing them head-on, but now the sense of futility has gotten to me, too.

Frustration is almost the wrong word, it has more active connotations. Disappointments might be better suited to this context. One is continually feeling let down by one’s peers and the customers we deal with, inconvenienced and disrespected without provocation. The disappointments accumulate relentlessly, in an impersonal way, as if under a gravitational pull.

Learned helplessness must be something other than a phenomenon of abnormal psychology, for this to be true. I see it as a social construction out of highly interdependent castes of ritual laborers with no independent survival skills or tenure rights. The potential to be freed from subsistence work to pursue highly skilled arts and sciences is what differentiates civilization from absolute poverty, but unemployment and underemployment are the normal corollaries of urbanization.

But normal and inevitable are not the same thing. Everything susceptible to analysis is susceptible to reform. Hand-offs are the main problem at work – often rude, sometimes ignored, and always consequential. One reason I work at a restaurant and not in an office is that I don’t interview well, and I think this has to do with skill in hand-offs. Everyone I work with is bad at this, to varying degrees.

According to what I’ve read, bad hand-offs are also the leading explanation for harm-causing medical errors. Again, I think it is a difference of degrees.

The main problem with hand-offs, in my experience, is that you have to get someone’s attention and tell them to do something in order to complete a hand-off, and no one likes to be interrupted or told what to do. It’s an attention economy problem, one that advertisers have a very fine-grained understanding of, and if marketing departments can unriddle the problem, surely there’s a way to manage the day to day business of team work, too.

I need to dig out some of my notes on team work and medical errors and share them with the management, along with Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People. This job may be a stop-gap solution to an ongoing job search for me, but I’ve been at it for over a year now, so I have a stake in it.

Besides, it could be an interesting experiment, to see what they make of these ideas for themselves.

Routine and culture politics

June 21, 2015

Going back over some of the things I wrote a year and a half ago, when I was talking to myself more than I should, I found a passage about pets that was strange, but salvageable.

There are bad moments that resolve, well worse than a moment long but they resolve, towards a realization that you expect much kindness of the world.

It dawned on you there was a detail you were missing, in your “why I can’t take it any more” recap of what has given you this particular headache that forces your attention onto the unriddled world of which everyone wants meaning.

Though with pets it’s really just stress, confusion, blundering shoves from fidgeting, blind with trust.

Lear was mistaken about something, however great his plight, to speak of bitches and hearths so furiously. Maybe that hateful spasm was just the hard edge of fear. But maybe it’s useless to explain anger away.

They shudder in my dark moods. But “abject terror”? Not on their part, never.

I don’t envy them the mutism, the limited understanding of words itself. Not exactly. But it doesn’t look that scary in its own right when you imagine a life of that kind.

You only really fear being refused the lack of understanding, cross-examined when you can’t talk. I wonder if that’s what they fear – it’s unclear how much they understand. Unclear for most of us among ourselves, too.

The best furniture gathers dog hair in the upholstery’s color bound, gear fitting weave. Indigo, red and apple pollen gold. Teased, shreds eaten, the good big parts were neat but now all loosened and pawed.

What’s real about life is a little bit cold. The limits of comfort are everywhere in evidence.

“I do not like a fabric in which the seams and stitches show, just as in a handsome body we must not be able to count the bones and veins.” Montaigne. “The eloquence that diverts us to itself is unfair to the content.”

Our pets are cocooned in the life-giving consolations of our routines. We neglect them out of frustration with the confines of habit and our dissatisfaction with the familiar, but their solid expectations remain. The section before this one was a rant on the subject.

Routine. It’s the daughter of invention, and a bit negligent. If it didn’t happen for you by accident, it hasn’t happened yet, but everyone else in that cozy built environment is sure it’s your fault somehow. …

It’s easy to be a critic when your responsibilities don’t seem urgent or unmet somehow, but when you can barely do enough for someone you love, the big picture is less a map of human error begging to be set straight than an eerie wilderness, devoid of safety nets, where birds fill the air with a conversation in which your survival doesn’t figure at all.


When I reread what I wanted to say before, I have to reject most of it as childish. I’ve learned a great deal in my first year of real financial independence. I wouldn’t go back if I could now. But I can see I still have a lot to learn.

Those same little details about human behavior that seemed so intractable, so difficult to forgive, take on new meaning when you’re negotiating for bare necessities. Then humans are magical beings, resourceful and pliable – words are all you have, and the sheer plasticity of meaning is your currency, not the truth.

Every stranger is a sphinx guarding a treasure horde, and the deeply fungible nature of value is what you unriddle to gain a foothold in those wildly unequal,  but ruggedly democratic social networks that manage the built environment encircled by degraded wilderness and open roads.

Viggo Mortensen’s The Road is like an anthem to me now. The great fear is other people. But with other people, it just depends. In the end, you can’t do it on your own.


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