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The deluded cult of social justice Woke revolutionaries don't want to repair society. They just want to overthrow the existing social order

October 16, 2019   7 mins

“Justice,” wrote Pascal in the Pensées, “is as much a matter of fashion as charm.” The truth of the 17th-century mathematician and theologian’s observation is richly corroborated at present. Seldom have the demands of justice been so manifestly faddish. Increasingly, justice is seen as not an attribute of legal systems but of entire societies. At the same time it is believed to be owed to groups more than individuals. In these circumstances, everything depends on whether the group to which people are deemed to be belong is in vogue.

Tibetans are no longer à la mode, though the destruction of their civilisation by the Chinese state continues, and few opinion-formers consider the persecution of Christians in the Middle East worth mentioning. Little is heard any more of the Yazidi, despite their still being a target of genocide by Isis. The Kurds are receiving media attention following their betrayal by Trump, but it will surely not be long before they are re-forgotten. Being identified as a victim of injustice has become a kind of privilege, handed out to favoured groups and denied to others according to the shifting diktats of progressive opinion.

A certain arbitrariness goes with demands for social justice. Possibly for this reason, SJWs (social justice warriors) are intolerant of criticism. In the US, anyone who argues that despairing Appalachian proles might be more deserving of concern than middle-class student protesters is condemned as a white supremacist, and their views suppressed. The suggestion that individuals and groups may suffer different degrees and kinds of injustice is rejected as reactionary thinking. Overthrow the prevailing power structures, and injustice will simply vanish. Anyone who questions this vision is not just wrong but evil.

The trouble is that the imperatives of social justice are inherently conflicting. Distributing the goods of society according to equality and merit are not just competitors in practice. Merit and equality are inherently antagonistic values. A number of recent studies have argued — correctly — that the meritocratic claims of western liberal societies are at best partly justified, if not actually fraudulent. But a society that was perfectly just by meritocratic standards would be extremely unjust in egalitarian terms. Some injustices may be worse than others, but no world is imaginable which all the demands of social justice are fully realised.

Markets are condemned because the distribution of income and wealth is partly random. But so is the distribution of genes. If you aim to correct randomness in human fortunes, you may end up in the dystopian world of L.P. Hartley’s Facial Justice (1960), in which people who are “facially over-privileged” are encouraged to have their looks surgically altered. Conversely, gross disparities in educational opportunity are accepted as long as they cannot be defended in terms of merit. In the 1830s Lord Melbourne declared he liked the Order of the Garter best of all his titles because there was “no damned nonsense about merit” attached to it.

Egalitarian thinkers take a similar line today. Selection by ability by grammar schools is rejected by large swathes of progressive opinion. Quite a few seem to find it less objectionable to send their children to schools where selection is by parental income.

Contrary to a familiar line of criticism, there are few signs of hypocrisy in these people. Hypocrisy requires a measure of self-awareness, and there is little evidence of that in them. When they buy an expensive education for their children, might they not be expressing their conscientious revulsion against the evils of meritocracy? No doubt egalitarians who send their children to private schools — or are well-heeled enough to buy a house in a catchment area containing a socially selective comprehensive — are stacking the life-chances of their offspring against those of the majority. But why should any child be denied the good fortune of having progressive parents?

When it does not lead to tragedy, the pursuit of social justice quickly turns to comedy. It is tempting to conclude that the very idea should be junked.

That was the argument of F.A. Hayek, strongly articulated in his magnum opus The Constitution of Liberty and reiterated in the second volume of his trilogy Law, Legislation and Liberty: The Mirage of Social Justice. Market processes emerge and operate spontaneously, and the resulting distribution of income and wealth does not correspond to any criterion of a just distribution. Markets reward luck as well as talent and hard work. Being in the right place at the right time is as important in determining anyone’s fortunes as their abilities or virtues. The defence of free markets turns on their superior productivity, not any theory of rights or justice. For the same reason, Hayek opposed any attempt to correct market distributions for the sake of fairness. In his later writings he showed some sympathy for John Rawls’s theory of justice, but this was because Rawls rejected the idea that justice meant redistribution according to what people may be thought to deserve.

Like Rawls and the egalitarian left, Hayek rejected any ideal of meritocracy. In conversations I had with him in the Eighties, he often observed that the fact that the free market operated without regard to anyone’s beliefs about the good life was for him one of its advantages. The price of a virtuous economy would be stagnation. A certain moral indifference was necessary for continuing economic progress. In praising the amorality of free markets, Hayek was influenced by the Anglo-Dutch economist and satirist Bernard de Mandeville, author of the early-18th-century poem Fable of the Bees, which argued that the driving forces of wealth creation and prosperity were needs and impulses that Christianity condemned as vices.

Because it invokes values that are inherently antagonistic, social justice is indeed a mirage. But so is Hayek’s libertarian ideal of a social order in which the market operates without any controls. It is striking how little Hayek learnt from the political disasters of his lifetime (1899-1992) in which liberal regimes were repeatedly swept away by malfunctioning markets. The Nazis came to power on the back of massive economic dislocation. Roosevelt’s interventionism and British social democracy were responses to the Great Depression and the experience of full employment during the Second World War.

Hayek opposed government intervention in the economy because he believed it to be a threat to liberal values. The message of history, however, is that the surest way to overturn a liberal regime is to let the market rip. Events after Hayek’s death confirmed this lesson. The anarchic capitalism of the Yeltsin era produced Putin’s authoritarianism, and post-communist Europe’s populist regimes came to power partly because former communist officials so often benefited most from the shift to a market economy.

If capitalism is legitimated solely by its productivity, anyone who fails to benefit from the wealth it creates has no reason to support a market system. A free market regime will be stable only if it delivers more or less uninterrupted growth and most people benefit from it. Except for a minimum income that protected against destitution, Hayek rejected any kind of intervention in the distribution of income produced by free markets. Yet as he acknowledged in his nod to Rawls, policies that alter market outcomes need not serve ideas of merit or moral deserts.

At present, when large sections of society have failed to benefit from many years of economic growth, measures going well beyond securing people against destitution are required. The goal must be to ensure a decent measure of economic security to everyone. Such policies need not invoke any ideal of social justice. The NHS does not exist in order to transfer resources from the healthy to the unwell, or even to provide medical care to those who cannot afford it. It is there to enable everyone to share a part of their vulnerability in common. Institutions of this kind do not serve distributive ends. They promote social cohesion, and thereby political stability.

Thinking about common institutions in this way is not another iteration of liberalism. The liberal preoccupation with distributive questions is part of the problem. What is needed is to shift to a way of thinking that is clearly post-liberal. Security and the need for a common life must be acknowledged as values that are as compelling as personal freedom, and frame a more coherent picture of a liveable society than inchoate visions of social justice.

The shift may be too great for liberal societies to accept. Protecting people from market-generated insecurity may involve some reduction of overall economic growth. In turn, any long-term slowdown requires high levels of solidarity among those affected. The social democracies of the past were all relatively closed societies — avowedly multi-ethnic but not radically multi-cultural. In practice, multi-culturalism is not so different from anomic individualism. Many are caught between communities and left without a common form of life. Yet that does not mean that large numbers yearn for release from the moral poverty of individualism. Many want greater security than they enjoy now, but not at the price of sacrificing the liberty to live as they please. It is a mistake to think most people in the affluent west want a different way of life.

The largest obstacle to a shift in thinking on these issues is the zeal with which ideas of social justice are held and promoted. The goal of most SJWs is not to repair or improve society. Instead, they want to overthrow the existing social order. Accordingly, they are untroubled if pursuing social justice is actually socially divisive. Like Lenin before the revolution, they believe “worse is better”.

If there is anything approaching an iron law in history, however, it is that revolutions are followed by injustice worse than existed in the ancien régime. The French Revolution produced a war against the peasantry in the Vendée (1793-1796) which cost somewhere in excess of a hundred thousand lives. The Russian Revolution produced a lesser known peasant rebellion in the Tambov region (1920-21) in which similar or larger numbers perished. The American Revolution is no exception. For indigenous peoples, which under British rule were sheltered from settler expansion, it was an unmitigated disaster.

But history has no lessons for the “woke”. To accept that revolution only multiplies injustice would destroy the meaning of their lives. The social justice movement is not based on errors in fact or reasoning. It is a cult, whose chief beneficiaries are the SJWs themselves.

At this point we are back to Pascal. He was able to view the shifts and turns of human ideas of justice with equanimity because he was confident a higher justice existed. Lacking any such belief and incapable of living without a surrogate faith, SJWs find meaning in the fantasy of a secular millennium, a battle between good and evil followed by a world they cannot imagine.

John Gray is a political philosopher and author. His books include Seven Types of Atheism, False Dawn: the Delusions of Global Capitalism, and Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and The Death of Utopia.

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Steven Jeager
Steven Jeager
3 years ago

This article would be perfectly logical and commendable were the market (aka the global industrial economy) not very obviously and rapidly collapsing the biosphere and denuding the planet of habitability. SJWs, liberals, libertarians, and conservatives, are speeding headlong into a mass extinction event while squabbling over the details of how best to do so. It is complete madness. Perhaps John Gray might one day acknowledge that looming environmental collapse and the impacts of market externalities are real things with real consequences. Till then, this kind of article is worthless delusion; politico-academic onanism.