Tough Shit Justice, or Changing the World


Marx’s famous pronunciation, 11th thesis on Feuerbach – Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern[Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it] – makes me wonder (and always did) whether philosophers should be trying to change the world as philosophers or if they should abandon their futile efforts to explain the world (or leave it to scientists) and do something else (that else hopefully would be directed at changing the world).

I’ve always read Marx here as mocking philosophers not simply for trying to interpret the world, but for assuming that the world is static and somewhat accessible and that the real task is to sort things out and produce an adequate theory of how the world is, not how the world should be. But then again how do we know what the world should be like so that we can direct the changes in the right direction? Clearly, outside of the philosophical discussions most people are able to say quite easily what they think the world should be like, but then again it depends on whom we ask: I’m sure a poor unskilled laborer would want more security and a filthy rich banker would want less regulation and more money. If norms (and saying we must change the world in this or that direction is nothing but an affirmation of what norms we must follow) are simply derived from opinion polls, then they will change depending on how we pose questions (politicians know how to do that, or I should say, people who poll for them know how to do that). In that sense, universality will never result from any sort of empirical gathering of evidence. Well, screw universality then, right? Let us ask each specific group what it wants and give it to it. What about the very strong possibility of conflicts of interests? What will guide us in choosing to do something for the poor and therefore putting the rich at disadvantage? Where does this criterion of right/good come from? If we derive our norms from empirical/practical concerns and observations, then we can only produce a kind of “tough shit justice”*: yes, there’s no universal criterion of justice/right/good, but the majority of us (workers, for example) decided that this is going to be the case, because that is what we want and since there is more of us than there are of you (or we have more power to enforce our will), then you will just have to accept this.

In this sense the criteria of justice/right/good will constantly change as they will appeal to different groups with different interests. Is there any sort of substantial human interest? If there is anything like that, it’s likely to be something very basic like food, shelter and so on, and even those “commonsensical” things are, we are told, constructed in various ways. So there’s an option of keeping up with these human concerns and change our understanding of justice/right/good and there’s an option of postulating a kind of universal stable constant concept of justice/right/good and force everyone to stick with it (which is what religion seems to be about, at least for me). Is there a third way? Is there a way to attempt to change the world in the right direction (as conceptualized by the most recent idea of justice/right/good) while maintaining that this right direction is not a chimera or a recent human fad? People used to think slavery was awesome, then they thought feudal relationships were the shit, now everyone is crazy about capitalism. Imagine a future textbook describing human history of 19th and 20th century in terms of our strange love affair with capitalism: “By early 21th century many realized that capitalism might be a rather faulty economic system that benefited few and left the majority of humankind in horrible conditions. After a series of cataclysms and popular uprisings, by the beginning of 22th century humanity was set on forgetting the nightmarish dark ages where profit ruled and was already moving toward the world it firmly established now.” Or think about slavery: it still exists (according to some scholars there are more slaves now than there were in “classical times”), but our idea of it changed – but what does it matter to a slave? What we say to a young woman lured out of her poverty with promises of a decent job, sold to a brothel somewhere in the Western Europe and exploited without much pay, medical care or dignity? “We are sorry about your predicament, but as philosophers we have done everything in our power to interpret your condition as unacceptable. We are now working on letting the objects speak and so forth.”

Returning to Marx then, the question is whether there is a demonstrable connection between our ideas of what the world must be like and the changes that the world is undergoing. Are we and can we change the world in any direction or does it change itself independently because it changes itself? Do our ideas of justice/right/good function as a simple survival technic in the sense that they do not have any prescriptive or predictive power but are masked attempts to deal with the cruel reality of what the world is already like? Shit happens and therefore we say “tough shit” and move on while philosophers quickly formulate the reasons for why shit that happened was bound to happen necessarily.  And yet I feel like we have already fallen into the philosophical trap of always interpreting things – what does Marx mean when he writes X? – as opposed to acting in any sort of direction. In this sense, interpreting the world, looking for the meaning of life, looking for truth are all very paralyzing activities: everything stops while we contemplate our next step. I have always been fascinated with histories of revolutions and crises simply because it seems that during those times the unmanageable character of the world’s changes becomes more obvious.

Back to justice then. What is justice? Is there one common understanding of what it is or does the concept itself function as an ideological smokescreen that allows for exploitation and oppression? If it is our task to change the world and not simply to explain it, then what sort of blueprint are we to use in our actions? Do we need a blueprint at all? Can’t we just do it? Do what?

Kung Pao!

______________________
* I wonder if I can use the expression “tough shit justice” in any sort of academic paper submission in the US or if I should look for something more polite like “tough luck justice”?

9 thoughts on “Tough Shit Justice, or Changing the World

  1. I have a soft spot for the Nancy Fraser’s reflections on justice, especially the idea that we should be creeping toward parity of participation. But it seems like in any crisis situation, justifications will always be post hoc.

    • I’m a fan of Fraser myself, I just often cannot make myself read her books again as, no offense to fans, her writing is rather tedious to read. It’s kind of a combination of interesting ideas and dry academese that I can’t take.

      • Her prose is very dry and she repeats often; this makes for skimming. And what she’s saying is so acceptable and self-evident, in most cases, that it isn’t likely to compel or provoke readers along or to anger. But as far as contemporary, superheavyweight academics go, it’s not bad stuff.

  2. Is there any sort of substantial human interest? If there is anything like that, it’s likely to be something very basic like food, shelter and so on, and even those “commonsensical” things are, we are told, constructed in various ways. So there’s an option of keeping up with these human concerns and change our understanding of justice/right/good and there’s an option of postulating a kind of universal stable constant concept of justice/right/good and force everyone to stick with it (which is what religion seems to be about, at least for me). Is there a third way? Is there a way to attempt to change the world in the right direction (as conceptualized by the most recent idea of justice/right/good) while maintaining that this right direction is not a chimera or a recent human fad?

    A quick thought. One of the problems that we see throughout the history of the philosophy, in my estimation, is the problem with moving from an ethics of individuality to the broader category of “sociality.” Somehow, given this dialectic, according to postmodern doxa, those ethics become lost, perverted, or totalized. What you seem to be gesturing towards is some sort of social ethic. One of the things Levinas asks in an early essay (I think it’s “The Ego and the Totality” but I’m really not sure) is something like “Is it ethical to be rational,” and without rehearsing the monotonous claims about the other, the face etc, I will only say this: the fulfillment of say, our demands to the other may only be able to be met through a universal community of the sort Marx points us to. In other words, by thinking in universal categories I recognize myself as fully social. So if we go back to L’s question above, this would be a case in which it is ethical to be rational. Real, actual “sociality” or the ethical demands of justice or whatever we call it demands the intervention of universality. I take this as, to draw on Levinas, the much maligned concept of “the third.”

    There’s more to say about this, but I have to run…but just off the cuff there seems to be an interesting connection between Marx’s critique of private property/privacy and the relationship between the ethical and the third in Levinas…

    By the way, some of the themes of love in Hardt/Negri may be of use here. Someday, if I ever have the time it would be interesting to draw out more fully the connection I hinted at between Marx/Levinas, and in connection with Hardt/Negri, Levinas’ own thinking about love throughout his corpus…

    But sometimes all this sounds a little, um…hokey?

  3. These are interesting connections, thanks. I like the approach of “is it ethical to be rational” (I might track down that essay) since it implies that it is our choice to be rational and that universality of some just social ethical community of a better world is something we are yet to achieve and it is our job/task to do so. I mean your traditional universality is a kind of “found property” in the human beings that we all happen to share, not something we invent, so to speak, and cultivate.

    Private property here is again thought of in a very Lockean sense of “making something yours” which still contains that uneasy element of the very obvious question (even if in Locke’s terms it was some common possession of the earth as ordered by God) of “where do things come from?” The same way we think of property as something natural and something the defense of which can unite us all around the idea of “law and order” we think of some universal characteristic of human beings (reason, self-interest, bodily functions etc etc) as that which is already there and just needs to be activated and used to unite us all into one social body. The relationship between me and some thing I make mine (a la Locke) is almost never problematized by the third, right? Nature as containing all the things that are not yet mine is a sort of a neutral zone – we go to work on it and make things that we then own because we mix in some labor with them – but does Locke successfully argue against the idea of common possession? Philosophically, I don’t think so, but historically we’ve certainly gotten the point of his argument so that now it’s almost mad to raise questions of property (it’s certainly a capitalist heresy) – how do you “own” something? Common possession in a way cancels the very idea of property, and it does so in this figure of the third, it seems – my intimate relationship with the thing that is mine is always under threat from the third who although agreeing to respect my possession of the thing can always disregard it and just take it from me. Isn’t “law and order” then a kind of psychotic compulsion to remind everyone about the myth of property until they internalize it to the point of “second nature”?

    In any case, ranting as usual. I don’t know enough about Levinas to make any real connections, but Marx + Levinas sounds interesting to me…

  4. The same way we think of property as something natural and something the defense of which can unite us all around the idea of “law and order” we think of some universal characteristic of human beings (reason, self-interest, bodily functions etc etc) as that which is already there and just needs to be activated and used to unite us all into one social body. The relationship between me and some thing I make mine (a la Locke) is almost never problematized by the third, right?

    Right. Another thought related to this “making mine.” Early on–and he shifts his tune by the time we reach the later work–Levinas problematizes love because it cooks up a “society” of two, however intimate. For Levinas, I could always repent any kind of injustice, violation or wrong to the beloved and in turn, be forgiven. Why? Because the violated person is always present as a “you.” When the third intervenes onto the “party,” and, when I satisfy your debt or need or give you your due I might also deprive the third of its satisfaction, or due, or right. Levinas, then, identifies the relation between “the two” before or beyond justice. In contrast, in terms of the broader society we don’t know everyone, obviously, let alone the awful things I may cause unbeknown to me. From this vantage point, the economy of the “two” can’t allow for such unintentional justice or injustice etc. When I buy Nike sneakers made in a sweat shop I can’t simply find the others I oppress and make nice. I can’t do anything about the “wrong” I committed. Levinas–and again, he backs off from this kind of harshness later on–likes to talk in terms of the harm done to the third by the intimacy of the two. In other words, the very exclusiveness of the two can be negligent or intentional civil wrongs not arising out of some sort of law, statute or contract etc.

    • There’s certainly something to this “third” – I have a sneaking suspicion that Levinas already addressed all the questions I have. I must definitely take a look. What strikes me as interesting, again, is the talk of “Mein und Dein” (mine and thine, as someone translated) in Kant’s discussion of property and basically in any discussion of property. In a sense, there’s no third in any relationship of ownership as it is only “I” and “you” in relation to some absent and insignificant “thing” ownership of which we are negotiating. I’ll have to think about it a bit. Is there a sense in which this “thing” is a kind of unassimilable excess of any “I” and “you” relationship – does the third person have to be a person like “I” and “you”? does this necessary triangulation produce the relationship of justice?

      • Yeah, the third takes up an ambiguous space in Levinas I think. Levinas admits it is other than the neighbor, but also another neighbor, and also a neighbor of the other, and not simply his fellow, lover etc. With the arrival of the Third the ego’s interest becomes divided between the other and others. The appearance of the Third extends the ego’s responsibility, for one its arrival is not automatically an empirical fact, and second, its arrival does not sequentially follow the ego’s exposure to the other. Rather, the ego is confronted with the face and the Third at the same time. I was curious to see how L shifts, if at all, from that earlier essay. In Totality and Infinity (which is about 10 years after that essay I cited above), Levinas writes,

        the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity. The face in its nakedness as a face presents to me the destitution of the poor one and the stranger…the poor one, the stranger, presents himself as an equal. His equality within this essential poverty consists in referring to the third party, thus present in the encounter, whom in the midst of his destitution the other already serves (157).

        So, the language is different, but the gist is similar: in the face of the other, the ego is confronted with the third and all of humanity. So, again, since we can’t prioritize that which is in proximity, we become concerned for everyone, and in turn, the “disinterestedness” of the ego becomes a concern for world peace or something like that. In short, the appearance of the Third broadens the pre-originary responsibility for the other, but ends up placing it under the jurisdiction of one of L’s late categories, the said (as opposed to the Saying). At bottom, I think L wants to say that the arrival of the Third ushers in the realm of justice. He tends to suggest (or is suggestive for me) it is the start of relative and distributive justice, e.g. introduces a regime in which judgments must be passed, and the ego is forced to compare that which cannot be compared, the other. We catch a glimpse of politics here, but it’s complicated by some of the work he does in this regard in the “Jewish writings.”

        Levinas is somewhat Kantian w/regards to his insistence that the other is a third, but not in the private type of love I noted below, but rather in the sense of a society of freedom, justice etc, and really, respect. I like that essay “The Ego and the Totality” because is prior to the asymmetry of the other favoring instead to discuss the “we,” which requires us to mutually invest each other with the freedom to command each other for the sake of the third. We give each other commands for the sake of justice, which requires equality. For L, the mutual relationships of the we cooks up this equality. This I think, is where Marx helps out…

  5. You have to call it “tough shit justice” if you want the name to represent it, because that’s what it is, a lack of compromise!

    I think your dead right on the religion front; an attempt to reach across all classes, disciplines and more mundane forms of difference, in order to find a framework that hits everyone. Or everyone within reach at least!

    I tend to think any justice worthy of the name will be dependent on the self-determinative power of the least powerful: A system that will no longer be it’self when the poor and the dispossessed do not have some basic level of ability to produce their own dreams and make them real. I hope very much that they only stable society is the empowering one, but I’m not sure.

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