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Enslaved to an Individualist View of Social Change

Enslaved to an Individualist View of Social Change

I note with some interest the debate over whether it is ethically necessary to refer to slaveholders as “enslavers” in order to convey our disapproval over their actions.  The obsessive use of the enslaving terminology in The Half Has Never Been Told (Baptist) bothered me at the time, and now I see he was part of a trend.

I understand the motivation—up to a point.  Anyone who participated in the slave system had a share in the responsibility for it.  It is not anachronistic to look at it this way, since many members of slave-owning households had the same feeling and chose to opt out.  Of course, this moral judgment applies not only to those who directly owned slaves, but also those whose livelihood was predicated on enslavement, which includes financiers accepting slaves as collateral and business owners producing goods for slave maintenance and exploitation.  To some extent, in my opinion, it even applies to workers for those slavery-based businesses: I’d like to think that I would never have taken such a job if I had been around back then.

Nevertheless, the insistence on language that parcels out responsibility to each participating individual implicitly distracts attention from the systemic, collective basis for slavery.  In what sense was an individual slaveholder an enslaver, personally responsible for the enslavement of his or her chattel?  An individual is responsible for whether they will be the one with the whip, but not whether individuals will be placed in bondage to someone.  The institutions of slavery, which encompassed the political, legal and financial mechanisms that defined, enforced and managed enslavement, took care of this.  Language that foregrounds individual responsibility backgrounds the institutional basis of the system.

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Social Justice: Debt, Solidarity or Care?

by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)

Social Justice: Debt, Solidarity or Care?

Mozi: scholar and activist
 

How do we think about the obligation of social justice?  The dominant American political culture is based on individualist values: you have a right to do whatever you want, and the main problem is how to prevent you and other rights-bearing individuals from getting in each other’s way.  Without extra considerations, social justice in such a universe is a matter of taste and inclination, which is to say charity.  You offer help to others when you feel like it.

But there is an important extra consideration, debt: our freedom in an individualist world is constrained by obligations to repay the debts we have incurred.  This may result from a purely financial transaction like a mortgage or a student loan, but we also recognize what might be called social or moral debts, where one person has benefitted at the expense of someone else and therefore owes compensation in return.  This might not be recognized in a court of law, but it makes an ethical claim that can cause people to feel a sense of obligation.

The you-owe-it-to-them argument is used on behalf of coffee-growers, for instance.  Those on the sipping end of the industry, when they hear stories about how hard these growers work and how little they get for it, rightfully feel obligated to go out of their way to make amends.  They buy fair-traded beans and patronize cafes that share, or seem to share, these same values.  If you benefit by drinking, you are indebted.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who I discussed in an earlier post, strongly pushes this framing of racial justice in America.  White people benefitted from centuries of un- and underpaid black labor, and from racial domination in general, and in this way they have accrued an immense debt.  Justice will not be achieved until the debt is acknowledged and paid back.

In fact, the “white privilege” language used to analyze racial inequality implicitly draws on this same notion of debt obligation.  Inequalities are assumed to all take the form of zero-sum relationships, where some (whites) have more because others (blacks) have less.  Thus the difference in outcomes can be understood as a debt that the better-off owe to the worse-off.  It’s politically effective insofar as it appeals to this deep theme in our culture, justice as the retiring of debts.

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