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The Meaning of Social Justice

By Punkerslut

From RadicalGraphics.org
Image: From "Anarchy" Gallery from RadicalGraphics.org

Start Date: March 26, 2007
Finish Date: January 4, 2009

     The Origins of Society

...the lower classes of the people... [are] by far the most numerous in all countries and in all ages...

-- James Steuart, 1767 [*1]

     Every society is founded on a common principle. A group of people is more capable of producing more together than each person would be individually. Industrialized production and specialized labor are some examples of how the group size contributes to a larger per-person output of the social product. In this organization, the worker's ability to labor is bound to the other workers. Since their machinery requires many hands to function, they require each other to produce as much as they require their tools. How well each laborer is able to perform their task, then, is necessarily tied to how well all workers as a whole are laboring. Where Capitalism reigns, there are even greater dependencies; not only is the laborer bound to themselves as a class, but they are bound to the class of proprietors. The worker rely on the owners of the bakeries and the mills for their sustenance; and they must rely on an employer as a laborer.

     The Capitalist class has its own interdependencies, as well. The masters of production are united in their mutual desire of opposing the laboring class -- to keep the subjugated class as dependent for as long as possible. There is also a tremendous amount of economic reliance between private business firms. They depend on each other for the resources of their production. It is clear to see, as well, that the larger firms tend to have a greater degree of influence; they are more capable of securing more for their self-interest when competing against other businesses or subduing local governments. But where the Capitalist enters the political arena, they are always weary not to displease other Capitalists in their actions; to quote Adam Smith, such an act of a Capitalist would be a "reproach to a master among his neighbours and equals." [*2]

     Between the workers, there is the natural and inherent interdependency based on their industrialized labor. But between the masters, there is also a dependency, or a unity. They are bound in their opposition to the interests of the workers and combined for their the interest of the propertied class. However, despite the conflicts between these two groups, the workers generally recognize something: even working in this system, where they are marginalized and persecuted, offers fewer miseries than living completely outside the society of humanity. This is the premise of society: each individual achieving their desires through their cooperation with others; because their collective efforts reap more for the individual, compared to laboring alone and outside of society. The whole is more valuable than the sum of all the parts. Social organization always drives back to this original concept.

From RadicalGraphics.org
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     Leaving Society

The contention holds that what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions. I call this contention astonishing because, in whatever way we may define the concept of civilization, it is a certain fact that all the things with which we seek to protect ourselves against the threats that emanate from the sources of suffering are part of that very civilization.

--Sigmund Freud, 1930 [*3]

     Any individual who turns away from society loses all of the benefits of the mutual cooperation. And especially after living in a comfortable world, few persons would do without what they've been brought up to admire, love, and enjoy. Losing one or two members from society will hardly effect its social order. A laborer or two can be replaced quickly, usually from stockpiling of the unemployed by the Capitalist. And, likewise, where a Capitalists rescinds their right to property to venture into un-societed land, their wealth is quickly usurped by their former equals. One or two taken out of the social order, and the rest can still take part in the cooperation scheme. This will not destroy the tremendous advantage that they receive by laboring together for their mutual interests. At least, if a few people leave society, it will not have this effect.

     Individuals are bound to society by their need on each other. Their resulting combination provides a net of security and labor-saving organization. They are allowed benefits and advantages that wouldn't be possible outside of the social unit. Even if the individual receives the smallest share from the collected efforts of the social order, they still enjoy more privileges than the hermit. For the few concessions that are given to the masters of industry, the individual laborer is still infinitely benefited. Their position will be more secure, stable, and comfortable than that of the person without a society. The allure of living without a master is not enough for the members of the social order. It would be too difficult to struggle alone against the valiant force of nature to survive; if they chose a landed society with a master, their miseries might be reduced by at least a hundred fold. This is the justification of these individuals in their concessions and submissions they allow to their chieftains and statesmen.

     This new class of masters, though, does not labor at all; yet they enjoy a reward that is significantly more than that of their ordinary wage-worker. If they should desire to leave the social order altogether, the worker has one advantage: they are out from the yoke of a resented master. They can still labor at their own accord and satisfy their own interests. Deprived of technology, they are slower in production. In the end, they may labor even less than in society, but they would enjoy very few comforts. For the proprietor, the owner of industry and productive capital, there are no advantages outside of the social order. If they emigrated to the state of nature, they would leave behind all their privileges. First, instead of being able to live off of the labor of others without contributing to production, they would be required to work very intensely. Second, the reward they would receive for such labor would be almost nothing compared to the extravagance and prestige they were afforded in society. Effectively, if a Capitalist were to remove themselves from society, they would be leaving behind a thousand pleasures, and gaining a thousand pains.

     Unlike the worker, leaving society does not remove them from the burden of an authority; the masters of society are the authority. The influence which they must fear is that of their equals, which keeps the Capitalist class naturally united and combined. They cannot oppose each other, because they each have equal means for resistance, and such a battle of intense powers would needlessly destroy themselves. To this Capitalist class, the social order of domination and hierarchy is perfection; with their lavish and expensive pursuits, every desire is met, and no pains are put upon them. In the absence of their labor, they are constantly involved in intrigue, snobbery, squabbling, instigation, prejudice, and arrogance. It is though it were a class of people who are so free of misery that they must make suffering for themselves in their social relationships. The state of society, then, isn't weighed equally by the workers as it is by the possessors of wealth.

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     The Friction of the Social Classes

Nobody was ever in prison wrongfully who did not believe in the writ of habeas corpus. Nobody ever suffered wrongfully without instantly having ideas of justice.

--Robert Green Ingersoll, 1876 [*4]

     When the worker looks to their master and finds this new class free of work and unlimited in wealth, they are naturally repulsed and disgusted. The attraction of bread, heating, shelter, and clean water, though, are far too great. The individual would rather sustain themselves by labor in society to achieve some comforts and pleasures; living without a master, as glorious as it may strike the heart, is not a strong enough motivation. Even though it may inherently appear against the laws of justice, the individual is still bound to do what is in their own self-interests. This means that some part of the laborer's creation shall be manifested in their wages. The surplus value is gathered and handed off to the class of masters, so that they can indulge and satisfy their impulses.

     It is a sign of decaying civilization when the majority is forced into conceding more and more of its labors; when the workers must take wage-cuts or suffer an increased cost of living, so that the masters can enjoy a greater privilege. Despite how much it offends our sense of justice and fairness, no matter how much we sympathize with anyone who suffers this fate and how much we loathe those who steer this system -- despite all of this, the individual will still make the trade. Society is better than the miseries of living in a state of complete nature; they will still submit to a master. The other option available leaves them considerably disadvantaged when compared to the common member of society. It is humanity's innate want of bread, and not its callous and cruel ambitions, that has built and sustained tyrannies.

     The meaning of social justice is to seek a fair distribution of these advantages; to direct them not to the idle masters, but to those who are the columns supporting the whole of society -- the workers. Those seeking to revolutionize the social relationship can have no other goal. The ideology of these revolutionaries was not to convince the masses to abandon their association with the civilized order of mankind, to leave society and live in perfect nature. They did not suggest that mankind should completely abolish all forms of labor. Their program never included that landed society should be abandoned in favor of a simplified existence in nature. The rabble rousers and agitators did not preach about the injustice of human nature, but of the injustice of the social organization.

     The majority labor and toil; of the vast and immense fortunes they produce, they must subsist on small, meager quantities. And at the top of the echelon, there stands a small, elite class; they enjoy wild and lavish pleasures, providing no labor to the support of the economic structure. Of history's wiser philosophers, there has always been an argument that the laborer deserves a greater quantity of what they produce, and the idle masters deserves less. But the wisest have gone even further, and said that the laborer has a rightful claim to all of their labor.

From RadicalGraphics.org
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     What is the Meaning of Social Justice?

... I know I owe my life to the workers of the nation, it is to the working class of the nation that I am under obligation, not to any subdivision of that class. That is why I am here now. That is why I am talking working-class solidarity, because I want to see the working class do for themselves what they did for me.

--Big Bill Haywood, 1911 [*5]

     In my own personal life, there are thousands of advantages I enjoy, all of which come from my civil organization with my fellow, society members. I am inspired by the will and the genius of those who changed the social order. My gratitude lies with those who created the eight-hour working day -- those who gave the workers more of their time, more of the product of their labors. It was by strikes, boycotts, protests, direct action, and civil disobedience that I have these rights. It was by resistance to the masters of the social order. By the same methods and tactics, these rebels also gave me safe working conditions at my place of employment. In America, the Capitalist can no longer save a few pennies by building factories without protective equipment and safety mechanisms. Less than one hundred years ago, the common worker in this nation faced the serious possibility of losing limb and life from their work conditions. Such cruelty has been put under serious constraint, not by the force of law, but by the social movements that have been opposed to the class of masters.

     The minimum wage and the right to unionize, as well, are other rights that are a social product of these movements. It is the result of pitched battles between labor and capital, between the privileged and subjugated, the masters and the subjects. These are not rights that were granted or admitted by the lords of industry. It was something that was wrested from their paws. Those who fought for it did not consider themselves as immemorial heroes fulfilling a legend. Their thoughts were with their present condition and what was to follow for their future generations.

     These are accomplishments from the labor movement. They were motivated and agitated from the influence of Unionists, Socialists, Communists, and Anarchists. There are some elements in today's world that would debate the value of these achievements. They would pass them off as the result of a classist struggle, where one side was more aptly capable of corrupting the government than the other. To please these critics, we just need to look back centuries further. Consider the first millennium in Europe, where possession of a bible written in a local language carried with it harsh sentencing. Those who opposed these laws, who organized against the established clergy -- it is to these individuals that we owe a great deal of our right to conscience. It was the heretics won the right to read the primary scripture of the culture's most widely accepted religion. The concession agreement signed by the masters of society was written in the blood of these agitators. The idea of absolute obedience to the ruling of a church fell apart. The people could then followed the reins of their own will. Our own religious and cultural freedom owes so much to those people who came before; they sacrificed their lives and property to create a brighter reality for humanity.

     To the serf who rose against their vassal, to the chained slave who slaughtered their owner, to the activist breaking windows and the women arrested for voting, to the imprisoned printers of Thomas Paine's' "The Rights of Man," to the students expelled for thinking and acting outside the boundaries, to the workers who pooled their collective resources into a strike or boycott, to all the children smart enough to flee a beating parent, to anyone who thought about their situation, what could be, and then acted on it -- it is to this group that we owe our present condition of living.

     My right to thought, to speak and believe what I like about the supernatural and natural, to worship and praise as I wish -- this right comes from none other than those who resisted the inquisition, those who fought for a separation of church and state, those defied the law and were chained, tortured, and finally dragged to the gallows by the state; it is to these that we owe the right to think, to write, to speak whatever we feel. What I can appreciate about our modern life is attributable to these individuals.

From RadicalGraphics.org
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     Those Who Came Before Us

There are always a few, better endowed than others, who feel the weight of the yoke and cannot restrain themselves from attempting to shake it off: these are the men who never become tamed under subjection and who always, like Ulysses on land and sea constantly seeking the smoke of his chimney, cannot prevent themselves from peering about for their natural privileges and from remembering their ancestors and their former ways. These are in fact the men who, possessed of clear minds and far-sighted spirit, are not satisfied, like the brutish mass, to see only what is at their feet, but rather look about them, behind and before, and even recall the things of the past in order to judge those of the future, and compare both with their present condition. These are the ones who, having good minds of their own, have further trained them by study and learning. Even if liberty had entirely perished from the earth, such men would invent it. For them slavery has no satisfactions, no matter how well disguised.

--Étienne de La Boétie, 1548 [*6]

     The dead are gone, but what they have done belongs to the living. The liberties and securities the people hold today are the end product of social organizing and resistance to authority. Those who published and distributed illegal opinions, whether it was against an invading power of imperialism or a corrupt, domestic government, are responsible for giving us the right to think and speak. These rights that we do possess, that contribute so greatly to our happiness, our health, and our harmony, these would not have been possible without resistance to authority -- without deliberate and oftentimes criminal activity.

     The dead revolutionary does not work the mills or the farms; their memory does not turn flour into bread. The history of reformers, past and present, does not give the people their clothes, their homes, or their food. The exchanges of labor and capital today are responsible for giving us the industry and its fruits. But what revolutionaries have done is give us the liberty to enjoy more of the fruits of our labor, to be less constricted by authority. What we have in society today comes from our own labors. But our right to appreciate our lives, by enjoying a greater share of our labor and more freedom, is something that those dead and past have given to us.

     Sanitary methods of food production did not come about from competing forces in the economy. Plumbing didn't bring water to anyone's home but those of the wealthy. Clean, sanitary water did not become commonly available because of any state or any church. All of the world's priests and police would not be able to bring a single drop to the people. Sewage systems require intellect and logic to be developed by brilliant minds. But our society required a second invention before the people could reap the benefits of this technology. Society needed an understanding and application of social justice; it needed to create its own ideas and use its power to resist privileged power. Without this advancement, without this new social tool, then the common people would have never be granted access to sanitation systems. They would be living with a few meager advantages, treated virtually as property by an oppressive, indulgent minority.

     It wasn't the printing press that allowed the ordinary person to write, think, and speak as they pleased. It took armies of dissidents, slaughtered mercilessly by the forces of the masters, and their refusal to submit. No charter or constitution or law created Free Speech; it was forced upon the masters of society, against their will, by the common people, organized for their common purpose.

     Consider a world where the people did not recognize the injustice done to them. Imagine if the people never resisted and revolted at the government's various systems of economy and politics, against the institutions of wealth and law. The laboring class today, if they didn't have these advantages, would be paid enough wages to satisfy the poorest means of existence; just inches away from thinking that life outside of the state of society would be easier. The technological prowess, that we have accumulated as a civilization, would be used as a tool to keep the minority tremendously advantaged, slightly benefiting the majority. This has been the case in Imperial China, where Adam Smith wrote, "Any carrion, the carcase of a dead dog or cat, for example, though half putrid and stinking, is as welcome to them as the most wholesome food to the people of other countries." [*7]

     With the advents of technology, today's individual laborer is as productive as one thousand laborers from a millennia ago. If this individual laborer today were to receive just enough to subsist, they would receive less than a thousandth of what they produced. There would be such a striking pain at the sight of the billions toiling upon countless labors and existing at such miserable levels of poverty; and through this, an extreme minority remained idle and indulged in such unimaginable excesses. Without rebellion, the teeming masses would be sleeping in mud, working in complete darkness with dangerous equipment. A small wound might be an amputation, an infection might be lethal. The life expectancy of a commoner would be an insignificant fraction compared to that of the wealthy industrialist. At the same time, the small group at the top possesses all means to keep itself at unbelievable health standards. They enjoy incredible stimulation in their entertainment, all the while contributing nothing of value to the whole structure; their privileges, wealth, and power are co-rights to their right of private ownership of the means of production.

     These conditions are foul, and they bring the natural senses to tremendous feelings of disgust and terror. But we can be certain that they are the result of an oppressive combination of the gods of state and the lords of industry. We are so certain, because this is the present condition of three billion people.

     Those who say "it is no so bad, we should love our masters," are narrow-minded -- they forget that the reason why it is not so bad is because our ancestors sacrificed themselves in destroying the power of the masters. They forgot that their masters are constantly and always working to invalidate their accomplishments. They will rework the accomplishments of the people towards devious ends. In America, a universal education system was advocated as a means of abolishing child labor; but like the Soviet Union emerging from under the Russian Tzar, the school system became a new system of brutality and exploitation. The industrialists have not been able to lobby to lower the minimum wage in the United States, but they've kept it stagnant for over a decade. The rights which people sacrificed themselves for, gave themselves to the burning embers and suffered terrible inquisitions for, -- these rights are stealthily being swept out from under the people. The state and the capitalist is either working in reaction to the peoples' demands, or they are working to whither away the small achievements they've so far achieved.

From RadicalGraphics.org
Image: From "Work" Gallery from RadicalGraphics.org

     Fulfilling the Legacy

We shall enter the career
When our elders are no longer there,
There we shall find their dust
And the mark of their virtues
Much less keen to survive them
As to share their coffins,
We shall have the sublime pride
Of avenging or following them

--La Marseillaise, 1792 [*8]

     We are not living in the ideal vision of those who resisted. We are living in a world that has just enough liberty and equity to make the majority submit. The concessions that the masters have granted were sufficient to subdue the masses; enough to make the average person say, "At least it is better than what we had." Through the persistence of their spirit, which are the rights and society that we possess, we can still create their vision... We can still create our vision.

     Everything we have today we owe to those many in the past who have fought for justice. The rights to freedom of speech, to assemble and gather freely, to worship unseen deities or to praise only the natural world, to think and believe anything you'd like, even the right to appeal to the state for protection from the violence of others in the social order, all rights we have today, we can appreciate for this reason -- someone struggled for them, suffered for them, and died for them.

     Our social rights, such as the right to live in housing that isn't toxic, the right to the eight-hour workday, the right to non-discrimination in the workplace, the right to unionize and picket -- all of these rights exist because individuals made ideals and acted upon them. The right to vote for both genders can be owed to none other than various democratic movements. So, too, is the right to equal access to the public functions of the government, whether the courts, the schools, or even public office.

     These accomplishments were not granted or admitted by any ruler or ruling body. They were forced from their hands. The shackles were never destroyed by wishes, but by actions. It is to those in the past and what they have done in their battles that we must owe our gratitude, our debt, and our admiration. To the protesters, the picketers, the union organizers, the activists, and the social dissidents, to those who carried prohibited pamphlets, to those who distributed birth control against the law, to everyone who participated in the abolitionist movement and the feminist movement.

     This is not to say that each and every person had perfect and untouchable ideas; rather, by their massive organization and their ideals, they were able to change the world in a way that would shape every future generation on the planet. It is to these movements that we owe everything. Without them, every person would still be a slave in shackles, at the beck and command of grueling, murderous labor, under a near infinite hierarchy of rulers and sub-rulers and assistant-rulers, unable to organize or speak or ask for an address of grievances from the abuses of others. We would be sleeping in mud, drinking infested water, constantly bruised and broken from the endless labor, subsisting on rotting and unpalatable food, not given a single amenity to soothe us from the harsh winters of this life, and then expected to produce a new generation to fill in; just before we give way to a passing existence that accomplished nothing but the maintenance of the order of tyrants. Everything we have today, we owe to those who came before us and changed society. And there is nothing more honorable or fulfilling than to follow in their unstoppable, legendary footsteps.

     No individual is mortal. Everyone must become part of the world's dirt. As it was from the ground that provided the nourishment of our ancestors, so we must return to that very same mass of nutrients, waiting to be used for the growth of trees, grass, and flowers. Everyone must die someday, but social justice is a matter of making something more that may belong to the living of future generations.

     Each one of us will make up the legacy of human history; we each have a chance to be one of those who changed the social order to create justice; we each have a chance to be remembered as among those who came before us.



1. "An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy," by Sir James Steuart, 1767, Book 1, Chapter 12.
2. "The Wealth of Nations," by Adam Smith, 1776, Book 1, Chapter 8.
3. "Civilization and Its Discontents," by Sigmund Freud, 1930. Published by W.W. Norton & Company, translated and edited by James Strachey (copyright 1961), with a biographical introduction by Peter Gay. Chapter 3, page 38.
4. "Centennial Oration," by Robert Green Ingersoll, 1876.
5. "The General Strike," by William D. Haywood; Speech by William D. Haywood at Meeting Held for the Benefit of the Buccafori Defense, at Progress Assembly Rooms, New York, March 16, 1911.
6. "Discourse on Voluntary Servitude," by Étienne de La Boétie, 1548, translated by Harry Kurz.
7. "The Wealth of Nations," by Adam Smith, 1776, Book 1, Chapter 8.
8. Lyrics from the Wikipedia page, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Marseillaise.

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