Monday, 3 April 2017

Marxists Are Not Social Justice Warriors

Everyone hates 'social justice warriors' (SJWs). It's become one of the favourite swearwords used by laptop reactionaries to categorise liberals and the wider left. If you're arguing for a redistribution of wealth and power, you could easily be pigeonholed as a social justice warrior. Anyone concerned with racism, homophobia or the inequality between men and women, can also be pinned with the same label.

It's a way of throwing some dirt over the fence with the hope that it lands on a leftist passing by. Yet the term itself reveals a paucity of understanding (maybe that's the point). Social justice comes out of the Catholic left and liberation theology. It's about compassion for the poor and social equity, basically distributing the goods we have amassed over time without necessarily changing the relations behind the distribution in the first place.

This is where social liberals, progressives and distributists differ to more radical socialists and Marxists. The economic and social problems we have cannot just be corrected by a quick reform, charity, different interpersonal conduct or a change of lifestyle. It's not just that the redistribution of wealth will solve exploitation, the relations of production and forms of ownership have to change too.

Believe it or not Marxism is not about social justice because it sees such a demand as impossible under capitalism. Justice is a moralistic demand in the first place, it presupposes that the system is capable of putting right its own iniquities. Not only is it impossible, the demand for justice fails to account for the fundamental problems of society. It implies that the question can be solved by a simple change.

Some Marxists are completely opposed to moralism and talk of justice. Others might view such demands as a tactical means of advancing a cause. For instance, I wouldn't say that the injustice inherent to capitalism is a reason for black activists to give up on the possibility of holding police accountable for their violence against the black community. It's just convicting police officers for murder is a step forward in a struggle.

Another example would be the labour movement. Some ultra-leftists would say that the attempts by trade unions to improve the wages and working conditions of their members are ultimately conservative, e.g. the unions just end up reinforcing the capitalism system with concessions for workers. So attempts to alleviate the pressures heaped upon working people just end up preventing revolutionary change. This is clearly wrongheaded.

Improvements to living standards can embolden people to push for more than what they've already got. Post-war social democracy in the West laid the basis for future struggles over gender, sexuality and race, thus the social movements of the Sixties and Seventies. The achievements of the counter-culture were later assimilated into the dominant culture, and even the struggles for racial and sexual equality have been co-opted by the neoliberals.

As a result, you can find words like 'intersectionality' and 'privilege' in Hillary Clinton's Twitter feed, but you will never see the word 'working class' (except to disparage the poor). If you remove class politics from the questions of race, gender and sexuality, you end up with neoliberalism with a left-wing face. The answer is to rediscover the importance of class and drop convenient illusions about 'social justice'.

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