FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Ferguson and Actual Justice

Killed at noon, just down the road from the grave of the slave Dred Scott, Michael Brown has now joined a perennially growing group of dead men and women (a group that only recently added Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Renisha McBride, and others) killed by a combination of institutional racism and systemic poverty. Poverty and race, of course (like race and wealth), cannot be easily disentangled. Not only has the man-made construct of race been used to justify seizures of material resources (gold, timber, land, etc.) from various locales throughout the world, impoverishing these; it has also justified enslaving people, creating immense wealth from slave labor. That is, racial discrimination is not only intertwined with poverty; its obverse, racial privilege, is a key component of affluence. As such, rather than the existence of the two Americas we hear so much about (black and white, rich and poor) there is really mainly one: the parasitic embrace of its constituent parts.

This entanglement of race and poverty, and the relations of domination it implies, demonstrates that poverty should also be regarded as something beyond the absence of economic power. For poverty refers to a condition in which political power, in addition to economic power, is absent. In other words, poverty refers to a lack – or, more accurately, a deprivation – of political-economic power that amounts to something more than political-economic weakness; it amounts to a weakness that leaves people vulnerable to such a degree as to constitute an injury in its own right – a vulnerability which tends to go unseen, taken for granted, and not easily distinguished from the more quantitative harms characteristic of poverty, such as high rates of incarceration, and epidemic levels of preventable diseases.

It is no coincidence, then, that the term injury is not just etymologically related but conceptually related to the notion of justice. And justice, if it means anything at all, requires that this ongoing injury (of marginalization, exclusion, and abuse) be repaired. But how is a society to repair such an injury? What type of repairs, or reparations, must be accomplished to correct this entrenched injustice?

The concept of reparations, of course, requires some clarification. Just what is it that we mean when we refer to reparations? In certain respects this concept overlaps with the equitable notion of restitution – according to which, if justice is to be effectuated, a party injured or harmed by another must be made whole – repaired – by the injurer. As this applies to the African American community, there is no question that the African American community has been monumentally harmed by the political and economic institutions of the United States of America. From insurance companies (such as Aetna) who profited enormously from slavery, to industrial and agricultural companies, not to mention banks, finance, and real estate interests, tremendous fortunes were made – and continue to be enjoyed – from the abuse and exploitation of millions of people. The law has a name for this type of enrichment: unjust enrichment.

Based on the ancient Roman legal maxim nemo locupletari potest aliena iactura – that none should be enriched from an other’s loss – the doctrine of unjust enrichment holds that when one is enriched at an other’s expense, irrespective of the enriched party’s fault, a duty arises to rectify this by disbursing the unjustly acquired enrichment to those harmed in its acquisition. According to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, then, the African American community ought to be reimbursed somehow for the collective injustice it has suffered. Moreover, those who profited from this suffering (and continue to enjoy the wealth and privilege derived from such suffering – a privilege that is nothing short of the obverse of discrimination) should be dispossessed of this unjustly attained advantage.

While the African American community may be among the most wronged people in the history of the US, however, we must not neglect to note that it does not occupy this category singly. Just as Ferguson is a suburb of St. Louis, the so-called Gateway to the West, this gateway opened on to nothing short of the conquest of the continent – and its appropriation, contrary to legally binding treaties, from millions of native people. As such, according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, the fortunes derived from exploiting the continent ought to also somehow be removed from those unjustly enriched by this, and returned to those unjustly deprived.

In spite of the fact that African Americans and indigenous people have suffered inordinately, it deserves to be mentioned that women and immigrants from across the world – Ireland, Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, China, Vietnam, and the rest of Asia, as well as from Latin America, among other places – have suffered generations of exploitation as well. In fields, in the depths of coal mines, and in countless sweatshops and factories, countless people have been compelled – at the expense of limbs, lives, and well-being – to produce tremendous wealth and power for a small class of people. Consequently, when discussing the issue of reparations and social justice, we must address the fact that – according to the doctrine of unjust enrichment, at least – most people in this society – the urban poor, the rural poor, the working class, and even the middle class – deserve some form of reparation. How, however, does one begin to repair this widespread impoverishment?

Because money derives its value in part from scarcity, exploitation, and debt – and, so, requires poverty and exploitation to function – money can only superficially correct the basic problem of poverty/social injustice. Instead of thinking about reparations as the distribution or redistribution of money, or of other commodities (the value of which is restricted to its exchange-value – i.e., money), then, we should recognize that actual justice, and actual peace, requires social relations that are not regulated by the drive for profit (i.e., peace requires social relations that are non-exploitative). As such, a step toward an actually just society can be accomplished not by distributing commodities but, rather, by decommodifying that which is necessary for an actually democratic society. Instead of remaining within the sphere of commerce, and subject to its whims, that which is necessary for human flourishing should not be available conditionally, in exchange for something else. Housing, nutritious food, water (as the situation in Detroit is making so clear), not to mention health care, education, communications, transportation, and other resources necessary for the realization of an actually just, actually democratic society should not only be inalienable (not for sale), an actually just society’s priority would be to supply these conditions directly. Producing and maintaining housing, food, livable cities, healthy ecosystems, and other conditions, would be a just society’s job – as well as its reward.

Beyond the obvious calls for the demilitarization of the police, and of the removal of money from politics – and even beyond the more intrepid calls for the abolition of the United States’ metastasizing prison system – actual justice and actual peace (the absence of which has been amply illustrated by the unrest in Ferguson) requires not just redistributing political-economic power; actual justice and actual peace requires neutralizing coercive political-economic social relations. Beyond the superficial justice involved in hauling off cops to prison, by de-commodifying and universally supplying those conditions that are an actually democratic society’s precondition we can move concretely toward social conditions of actual justice, and actual peace.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and teacher. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com

More articles by:

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at elliot.sperber@gmail.com and on twitter @elliot_sperber

February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzick
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
Jon Rynn
What a Green New Deal Should Look Like: Filling in the Details
David Swanson
Will the U.S. Senate Let the People of Yemen Live?
Dana E. Abizaid
On Candace Owens’s Praise of Hitler
Raouf Halaby
‘Tiz Kosher for Elected Jewish U.S. Officials to Malign
Rev. William Alberts
Trump’s Deceitful God-Talk at the Annual National Prayer Breakfast
W. T. Whitney
Caribbean Crosswinds: Revolutionary Turmoil and Social Change 
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Avoiding Authoritarian Socialism
Howard Lisnoff
Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Anti-immigrant Hate
Ralph Nader
The Realized Temptations of NPR and PBS
Cindy Garcia
Trump Pledged to Protect Families, Then He Deported My Husband
Thomas Knapp
Judicial Secrecy: Where Justice Goes to Die
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail