The Politics of Plunder

Calls for reparations for African-Americans are pleas for justice.  They are raised every now and then, but seldom attract much attention.

Lately, however, attention is being paid — in the blogosphere and even in the outer fringes of the corporate media.   Chris Hayes, for example, recently discussed reparations on his program on MSNBC.

This latest flurry was prompted by the publication of an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.   Coates is a senior editor of that venerable – thoroughly “centrist” — magazine, and a blogger on its website.

How seriously should this development be taken?

*  * *

Martin Luther King was surely right when he said that  “the arc of the moral universe…bends towards justice.”   It bends at a glacial pace, but it does bend.  The fact that everyone nowadays, even unreconstructed racists, would agree that slavery was a gross injustice is evidence that it does.  So too is the fact that Jim Crow (de jure) segregation has lately come to be regarded similarly.

That racial injustice is still a problem in America is more controversial.  It is fair to say, however, that most people of good will do agree that problems still abound, that injustice remains rife.

Proponents of reparations therefore have an easy time establishing the premise of their argument: that, for as long as European and African peoples have cohabited in North America, injustice has been the rule – to the advantage of whites and the disadvantage of blacks.

Everyone would agree too that, as a general rule, there are grounds for indemnifying the victims of injustice.   The grounds may not always be compelling, but there is always at least a prima facie case.

One might therefore expect that a convincing case for reparations would be easy to make.  It is not.  Arguments for reparations are almost universally dismissed.

Part of the problem is the vagueness of the proposals reparations proponents advance – who would get what and from whom?

This question has become especially intractable in recent years.

Racial divisions in America these days are no longer as clear as they were when everything was, or seemed to be, a matter of black and white.  Thanks to immigration from everywhere on earth and thanks too to demands for recognition from the indigenous and Hispanic peoples Anglo settlers long ago displaced, “persons of color” now come in many more shades than two.

Also there are now many more “mixed race” Americans than there used to be.  The dividing line between “blacks” and everyone else, including majority “whites,” is therefore becoming obscured.

Were there good will on all sides, proponents of reparations could probably address these problems well enough to satisfy most skeptics.  But in a period like the present, when redistributive policies of all kinds are in disfavor, good will is conspicuously absent.

In any case, uncertainties about what reparations would involve are not why the idea lies dormant most of the time — or why, when interest is aroused, its shelf-life is typically brief.

The reason for that is political: the issue is a non-starter.

For one thing, everybody knows, or thinks they know, that the white majority would never go along.

Neither would many African Americans.  They too buy into the self-help, pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ideology that whites do.   Our first African American president – or our second, if you take Toni Morrison’s Bill Clinton nonsense seriously – is a case in point.

And, of course, there is also the worry that, were African Americans to receive reparations, the floodgates would open; other groups would demand reparations too.  There are a lot of victims of injustice.

In addition, African Americans, along with other persons of color have to worry about the precariousness of their situation in “post-racial” America.   They have reason to fear that the victories they have won are fragile and can be reversed, especially if they push too hard.

The result is that for talk of reparations ever to go beyond talk, the world would have to change first – in ways that would make reparations redundant.

But the issue will not go away; for long stretches of time, it may seem that it has, but it never does.

Coates’s article is a case in point.   Like its many, largely unnoticed, predecessors, it is a plea for justice.  But it does more than just recycle old arguments.  Coates has added a few new wrinkles to reflect upon.

The usual case focuses on slavery.  But with former slaves and their immediate descendants long gone, such appeals increasingly fall on deaf ears.

This is only to be expected.  One reason why the Common Law tradition upholds “statutes of limitation” for criminal offenses is that, as time goes by, “proof beyond a reasonable doubt” becomes too difficult to establish — witnesses die, memories fade, and evidence is lost.

A more important reason is that the practice gives expression to the human tendency to let bygones be bygones.  This is how many Americans today – descendants of former slaves and descendants of former slave owners alike – view slavery.

The Jim Crow era is still within living memory of course, but, in this case too, there is a powerful desire on the part of many to write “paid” on the injustice.  Had more Great Society programs survived and flourished, this reaction might actually be plausible.

However, nowadays, even “affirmative action” is under assault, along with other federal programs designed to counter the political and social consequences of Jim Crow.

The culprits are not just the five reactionary Supreme Court Justices who see, or say they see, no further need to indemnify African Americans for anything, and who would instead dismantle the feeble remedies put in place decades ago.  Those jurists have a lot to answer for, but they are not the only obstacle in justice’s way.

There is also a Republican Party, transformed beyond recognition as Nixon’s Southern strategy keeps sinking in, and a Democratic Party full of sham liberals whose interest in African Americans – and in other constituencies that regularly vote Democratic — stops at the voting booth.

To justify themselves when pressed, they will say that the lingering consequences of slavery and segregation are too insignificant to require remedial public policies now.

This is where Coates’s new wrinkles kick in.  In his Atlantic article, he focuses on the continuing relevance of policies that are nearly as consequential as Jim Crow laws were for keeping blacks (and others) down, and whites up.   The difference is only that they are not as clearly racially marked.

These include banking practices and drug policies that work to the detriment of African Americans – causing and sustaining the social “pathologies” for which racists, and our Commander-in-Chief, habitually blame the victims.

The offending policies were built into some of our most vaunted and progressive New Deal and Fair Deal reforms; even Great Society programs were not immune.

After the Vietnam War ended the Great Society, the situation became worse again as redistributive social programs withered away – only to be knocked off altogether as the neoliberal turn took shape.

Meanwhile, politicians who found it expedient to appear tough on crime took the path of least resistance by targeting black youth.  Punitive drug laws tailored, more or less deliberately, to lead to the mass incarceration of African Americans and other persons of color, were one consequence.

Coates also makes clear the signal importance of wealth, not just income, inequality for explaining differences in the life prospects of whites and blacks, respectively.

His article underscores the particular difficulties the poor generally, and blacks especially, face in acquiring and accumulating wealth that can be passed on from generation to generation.

Here, again, predatory financial practices are especially at fault.  In turbulent economic times, they can wipe out decades of diligent effort.

The Obama administration’s deliberate failure to come to the aid of distressed homeowners after the housing bubble crashed should be at the top of Coates’s list.  Obama chose to save the banksters, not their victims.  However, Coates is too discreet to dwell on the malfeasance of the nation’s first African American president.  Like some other black intellectuals, his guiding principle seems to be Babbitt’s: “boost, don’t knock.”

The injustices Coates identifies are hardly news to historians, sociologists, political scientists and economists.  The merit of his article lies in the deftness with which he spreads the word — relying as much on well-chosen illustrations as on statistical summaries of relevant data or accounts of recent research findings.

There is injustice aplenty, and it cries out for a remedy – now as much as ever.  Does making this clear as can be seal the case for reparations?

Perhaps it does in principle.   In practice, however, the argument really is a non-starter — not because reparations cannot remedy the kinds of injustices Coates identifies but because, in the real world, justice is not what reparations are about.

* * *

I’ll explain why presently.  First, though, it will be instructive to point out how Coates’s case for reparations proves too little and too much, and therefore wouldn’t nail the case for reparations even if justice were a mightier force in real world politics than it actually is.

The core idea that all conceptions  of justice articulate is that like cases ought to be treated alike.

There can and will be contestation over what counts as a like case and over what counts as equal treatment.   But there is nothing for a partisan of justice to contest in the general principle itself; to hold that like cases ought to be treated differently is to abandon justice altogether.

Since Aristotle’s time, philosophers have distinguished distributive justice, which deals with the distribution of benefits and burdens, from retributive justice, which is concerned with punishment.  In both cases, the core idea, that like cases be treated alike, applies.

Then there is, additionally, the more vexed question of what to do when the core principle is violated; how to make the situation right again.  This is the problem of restorative justice.

It only arises when benefits and burdens, or punishments, have been meted out unjustly, or rather in ways that apply indefensible standards for counting cases and treatments alike.  Notions of restorative justice therefore supervene on theories of distributive and retributive justice.

Insofar as Coates addresses disproportionately high incarceration rates for young black men, questions of retributive justice are involved in his call for reparations.

But his main focus is on the distribution of benefits and burdens.  Reduced to its core, the claim is that the white majority has been ripping off African Americans, in varying ways and to varying degrees, from the time the first slaves arrived in the Americas to the present day.

True enough, but this is not the only injustice there has been.  Quite the contrary, there has been injustice all the way back.  It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that injustice is all there has ever been.

This conclusion is hard to resist on any plausible theory of justice, including the one that, at an intuitive level, seems implicit in attempts like Coates’s, to argue that African Americans have been victimized in ways that others have not — ways for which reparations might indeed be a remedy.

The theory I have in mind is the one Robert Nozick famously defended in Anarchy, State, Utopia (1974), a work that gives theoretical expression to the intuitions that lead libertarians to conclude that genuinely “free” markets in private property regimes generate outcomes that are just.

Nozick was too clever to regard his theory of justice as an outright defense of our capitalist status quo, but many of his readers, and others who follow along the lines he blazed, are not as circumspect.   They may acknowledge deviations at the margins between their libertarian intuitions and real world practices.  But they think that the distributions capitalist markets generate are basically just, and certainly just enough not to require remediation.

To understand the structure of Nozick’s argument, an analogy will be helpful.

A deductive argument is a sequence of sentences every one of which follows from preceding sentences by truth-preserving rules of inference – going back to premises, sentences that are accepted as true for the sake of the argument in question.

If the premises are true and if the rules of inference are properly followed, the conclusion, the last sentence in the sequence, is true.  We can be as confident of this as can be.   For establishing conclusions, deductive arguments have been the gold standard from time immemorial.

The argument Nozick concocted proceeds analogously.  It has two parts: a theory of just initial acquisition that specifies how individuals can rightfully appropriate previously unowned things; and a theory of justice in transfer, that specifies how rightfully owned things can be exchanged or given away.  Whatever is rightfully acquired directly from nature is like a premise, and the rules that govern exchange are like truth-preserving rules of inference.

Then, just as whatever is deduced from true premises is true; whatever results from the just transfer of justly acquired things is just – no matter how unequal the resulting distribution may be.

For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that a theory of this sort is defensible.  This is a major concession, and not only because no one has ever produced a plausible theory of just initial acquisition.

John Locke (1632-1704) tried and Nozick and others have done their best to improve on his views.  But no matter how many epicycles they add on, Locke’s labor theory of property, the best – indeed, the only — contender going, is and always will be hopeless.

The idea that voluntary exchanges are justice preserving fares better, though it is far from clear how merely excluding overt force or fraud, which is all libertarians normally do, is enough to convince anyone who is not already a confirmed libertarian that market transactions really do preserve justice.

How just, for example, is the wage bargain of classical economic theory?  Workers are not slaves; no one forces them to work.  But if the alternative to working for a subsistence wage is starvation, where is the justice in that?

Even if we turn a blind eye to these and other problems with theories of justice of the Locke-Nozick type, it is plain that real world capitalist markets do not even begin to approximate what they envision.

People have always come by the things they own in ways that flagrantly violate the theory’s precepts.   The problem isn’t just that previously unowned things have seldom been privately appropriated without violating other individuals’ rights.  It is also that force and fraud have been endemic to capitalist market transactions from Day One.

Therefore, even on a libertarian theory of the kind just sketched, real world capitalist distributions are flagrantly unjust.

Libertarians deny this, of course; many of them also insist that unfettered economic rationality in genuinely free markets will dissolve away any and all disabling effects of racial divisions and animosities.

Read Coates — and see how, in the real world, just the opposite is the case.   So far from ending racial inequalities, actual market transactions exacerbate the problem.

This too is not exactly news, except to libertarians and others who unreflectively think like they do.  Many people these days find themselves doing precisely that, whether they realize it or not.

In any case, if injustice is pervasive, why do only African Americans deserve reparations?   Why single out this one group?

The problem is not that groups cannot rightfully claim redress for the injustices their members suffer.

There is a view, widespread in libertarian circles, according to which only individuals, not groups, can suffer injustice.

This position has been refuted many times over.  Among other things, affirmative action programs could never have gotten as much of a foothold as they once enjoyed, had this not been so.

In any case, there is no need to go back over that territory here.   Coates does use stories about the lives of individual African Americans to buttress his larger contentions.  But his aim is not to argue against, or otherwise engage, those who might be inclined to think that the problem with what he is calling for is that reparations can only be owed to particular African Americans, not to African Americans generally.

Whoever would advance that very implausible contention is engaging a different, less pertinent, “conversation” than the one broached in Coates’s article.   Coates has nothing directly to say to them, and neither, at this point, do I.

I would say instead that it is beyond dispute that African Americans as such have suffered from, and continue to suffer, serious injustice.  What is disputable is the conclusion that these injustices, grave as they are, call for reparations as a remedy.

Or rather, if they do, then why don’t the injustices suffered by others, the vast majority, also?   Is there a difference in kind or in degree?  If so, what might that difference be?

Maybe there are satisfactory answers to these questions.  I doubt it, but I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility out of hand.  My point is different.

It is that while reparations can and do address issues of restorative justice, justice is not what reparations are about.

* * *

For as long as human communities have battled one another, the winners have plundered the losers.  The modern notion of reparations derives from this practice.

The moralization of the idea, the notion that reparations can be required by justice, is recent.  However, applications of the moralized concept remain true to form; they are almost always about plunder.  They are also typically disingenuous.

France demanded reparations for the financial losses French plantation owners suffered during the Haitian Revolution of the late eighteenth century; formerly the most prosperous colony in the Caribbean, Haiti, now the poorest country in the Americas, is still suffering the consequences.

Later, colonial powers were not above demanding reparations on similar grounds from the Chinese and others.  There is also the example of the reparations regime the allied powers imposed upon Germany after World War I.

However, it was not until after the Second World War that reparations of the kind Coates talks about began to find their way into mainstream discourse.

A well-known proposal, floated briefly during the American Civil War and then in the first years of the Reconstruction period, might seem an exception: the proposal was to give freed slaves forty acres and a mule.

In recent decades, this has seemed nothing more than a cruel joke; that is not how it seemed at the time.

However, this proposal was never about justice; it was about land reform.  The old plantations would be confiscated and turned over to the slaves who had formerly worked on them.  This would serve two purposes; it would keep production up, and it would help guarantee that the South would not rise again.

The plan was dropped, however, when the Republican Party, settling into its pro-business vocation, decided that wage labor, not land ownership, was a better way to go.

Before long too, the federal government saw to it that nearly all the property that had been confiscated during and after the Civil War was returned to its former owners.   Thus forty acres and a mule, a nearly stillborn idea from the outset, soon became a dead letter.

Coates wisely looks to more recent precedents – in particular, to the reparations the German Federal Republic paid Israel.

He thinks this example shows how beneficial reparations can be.  He is right; what Germany paid Israel benefited the young state enormously.  The implication then is that reparations to African Americans would be similarly beneficial.

Views of white and black Americans today do vaguely parallel views that were widespread in the fifties and sixties in Germany and Israel.

Some Germans then, like most white Americans now, regarded themselves as blameless, and others thought that nothing that had happened rose to a level that would warrant measures as extreme as were being proposed.  Meanwhile, some Israelis wanted nothing to do with Germany.

But, on both sides, rational self-interest prevailed.  Germany needed to rehabilitate itself in world opinion; and Israel was glad to get the money.  It did not take long before the two countries became fast friends.  One might almost say that, from that point on, they lived happily ever after.

But what does this example really show?

To be sure, in arguing for reparations, questions of justice were raised.  But they were not driving events; political exigencies were.  Reparations were paid because this made sense for both countries.

And to the extent that moral and political considerations interacted, it was under the aegis of an ideologically driven narrative of very dubious standing.

Why, after all, would Israel have been owed reparations?  Why would it have any standing at all in debates about whether and to whom reparations from Germany might be due?   The state of Israel didn’t even exist when the injustices for which reparations were paid occurred.

For German reparations to Israel to make sense, one has to buy into the idea that Israel is the state of the Jewish people – not just live Jews, and not even past, present and future Jews, but all possible Jews as well.  Then, and only then, could Israel claim a right to reparations on behalf of Jews who perished outside its borders before it had even come into being.

It is telling that East Germany, the German Democratic Republic, never acknowledged a duty to pay Israel reparations.  It was in the grip of another, more plausible, ideology, according to which the perturbations and disfunctions of capitalism were ultimately the cause of the Nazi Judeocide.  Then, the argument went, since the GDR repudiated capitalism altogether, it could not be held responsible for crimes perpetrated by capitalist regimes.

It was also relevant that, by the early fifties, the GDR, like the Soviet Union, had come to see Israel as an adjunct of its Cold War nemesis, the United States.  It therefore had no interest in building Israel up.

The West Germans did.  By the time reparations got going, West Germany and Israel were on the same side; and Israel was key to their efforts to ingratiate themselves back into the community of nations allied with the United States.

In The Holocaust Industry, Norman Finkelstein showed how most of the money Germany and other European nations turned over as compensation to Holocaust survivors ended up in the coffers of the Israeli state and the Zionist movement.  Actual survivors  saw little of it.

Finkelstein’s book is reviled in Zionist circles, and Finkelstein himself has suffered mightily at the hands of the Israel lobby.  But the arguments he laid out are scrupulously documented, and no one has ever proven him wrong.

The situation he documented was made possible by the highly ambivalent attitude Zionists evince towards the Nazi assault on European Jewry.

On the one hand, as many observers have noted, Holocaust remembrance effectively functions as Israel’s state religion.  But many Zionists feel, at the same time, that the Jews who met their end in the Final Solution embarrass the image of the militant, unyielding Israeli that they want to promote.  The result has always been that survivors have gotten short-changed.

West Germany went along with this.  If the leaders of the Federal Republic felt any greater sense of responsibility towards the victims of the Nazi Judeocide than their counterparts in the East, the difference registered only slightly at the policy level.

Of course, considerations of restorative justice came up repeatedly in debates about reparations; how could they not?  But the reparations themselves were driven by political, indeed geopolitical, exigencies.

It is the same for African Americans.  No matter what justice-based arguments defenders of reparations muster, efforts to get reparations paid will go nowhere unless political reasons arise to move them forward.  The chances of that are nil.

In the 1980s, the U.S. government disbursed some $1.6 billion in reparations to the more than 80,000 Japanese-Americans who had been interned during World War II and to their heirs.

In this instance, the victims really were the beneficiaries.   But this too is not much of a precedent for reparations for African Americans –and not only because, in this case, the victims, and the losses they suffered, could be easily and uncontroversially identified or because, unlike in the forties, anti-Japanese attitudes are now effectively extinct.

The main difference is that people in Japan care about the fate of overseas Japanese, and the United States cares about Japan.  There was probably no time that it cared more than in the eighties, when reparations were paid, and when it seemed to many observers that much of the United States was being bought up by Japan Inc.

In other words, there was a geopolitical aspect to those reparations.  Issues of justice were salient, and they were frequently and conspicuously raised.  But had there been no political or geopolitical dimension to the story, it is unlikely that anything would have happened at all.

From a moral point of view, justice matters preeminently; but justice hardly matters politically, unless circumstances are such that it becomes expedient for the powers that be to make it matter.

For African Americans, something like that happened in the 1960s – in the wake of urban rebellions and protracted struggles waged under the aegis of the civil rights and black liberation movements.  There is nothing like that on the horizon now.  Well-reasoned arguments in opinion magazines don’t nearly make the grade.

However, income and wealth redistribution are finally coming back onto the political agenda.  Even if only to coopt the momentum, leading Democrats, including the President himself and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive 2016 nominee, are trying desperately to get in on the action.

That such faithful servants of corporate America would find it opportune to pretend to side with opponents of inequality is as good a sign as any that the writing is on the wall.

Because African Americans suffer disproportionately from the factors that are now making wealth inequality worse, they, along with other persons of color, stand to benefit disproportionately from whatever is done to stop this process in its tracks and, better still, to reverse it.

This is where effort should be expended, and where it can do the most good.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).