Archive for August, 2015

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?