There has been a growing demand for “social justice” across wide strata of society, from tenured professors to anonymous denizens of the internet and many in between. As a phenomenon, it is commonly attributed to the political Left — which is fitting, as both “social justice” and “the political Left” are poorly defined, with hazy connotations.
For it is not clear what social justice means, exactly, in today’s political biosphere… Is it a social movement? Or is it an academic concept? A culture of some sort? Simply a continuation of longstanding doctrines gaining currency under a new title? Maybe some combination of the above. Valid arguments could be made for any of these categorizations. But this not the place for such arguments. What this piece instead aims to examine is why the contemporary proponents of social justice fall short of being able to achieve their stated goal, despite their best intentions. Here, for the sake of clarity, it will be assumed that “social justice” is both a methodology for critiquing modern (stereotypically Western) society and a fluid activist subculture.
Just to be clear, this article is not another attempt to dress up right-wing talking points about “the SJWs” as reasoned Marxist polemic. Rather, its objective is to engage with the assumptions that underpin contemporary social justice discourse in good faith, and offer an alternative, more rigorous framework that can be used to pursue its purported ends.
A dissection of the critique
It would be pointless to offer a critique of social justice without specifying what the discourse looks like today, what comprises it. Contemporary proponents of social justice posit that there are hierarchies built into society stratified along the lines of identity. “Identity” in this particular context means any grouping based on pregiven characteristics, which individuals often have not chosen for themselves. This includes but is not limited to “race” or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability/disability, mental health, and socioeconomic status. The idea is that each identity serves as a category, where an individual can be either oppressed or privileged based on their attributes within that category. For example, it is ubiquitously accepted among social justice advocates that, everything else being equal, a black person is more oppressed under Western society than a white person, who experiences more privilege than the black person. Of course, most proponents of social justice are perfectly aware that their views cannot be boiled down to such a mechanistic formula. In reality, one cannot have two individuals where everything (save one category) is as equal as possible. All these various identity groupings purportedly intersect and modify each other. So a critic who uses a social justice framework would say a black woman and a Latina woman, while both women (and thus oppressed compared to men), have very different experiences as women due to factors relating to their ethnic group, such as gender norms in black and Latino populations, and norms pertaining to the perception of black and Latino people by people in “dominant” social strata. In this example gender norms and perceptions of people of color are thus the purported mechanisms by which the individuals in the dominant strata (men and white people, respectively), oppress individuals whose identities are women, black, and Latina. These are typically referred to as “systemic injustices,” especially when one of these oppressive mechanisms is codified into or catalyzed by an existing law.
The social justice critique of society, outlined in the previous paragraph, operates on a several key assumptions. First and foremost, that each category contains both “privileged” and “oppressed” identities (some proponents of social justice critique believe that identities in these categories can be numerically ranked while others do not; this distinction is not particularly important for the arguments laid out in the subsequent sections). The second assumption is that the “privileged” members or groups of a certain category are the ones perpetrating the oppression of the other identities in that category. The third assumption is that mechanisms of oppression, whether codified into law or just habitually inflicted on members of lower strata, are tied to the dominance of the dominant identities and individuals who are part of those identities. A common position held by individuals who subscribe to this worldview is that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, all cisgendered people are transphobic, and so forth. This assertion is not quite as moralistic as it might look at first glance (though it is still fundamentally moralistic), as the source of these alleged prejudices held by people in dominant identity groups is explained as a process of socialization in which they are passively ingrained, reinforced, and perpetuated due to historic factors, not because any group is inherently evil. Blame for the perpetuation of these prejudices does still tend to fall to individuals. The next section will examine how these assumptions are fallacious, and how the conclusions drawn from them are not applicable to society.
Now that we have established, in as fair and as good-faith terms as possible, what the social justice critique is and how it operates, let us examine the shortcomings of its internal assumptions. It should be noted that the assumptions underpinning the social justice worldview each have elements of truth to them, but they tend to miss the (much) bigger picture, and are left all for the worse for it as a result.
These assumptions are rooted in a deeper assumption, that the operational details of society are dictated by the thoughts of individuals, and that these thoughts dictate their social behavior. In the case of an individual of a dominant identity, the thoughts would be oppressive biases — racism, sexism, heteronormativity, transphobia, etc. His or her behavior would be the manifestation of these biases in actions, whether consciously realized or not. Another assumption is nested within this assumption that thought is the locus of social change. Thought is supposedly the deepest point from which action and then the rest of reality comes to be, which can only be changed by more thought, whether by self-realization or by coming to understand others’ thoughts (which in reality is still just the individual’s own thoughts). As if we were not deep enough into assumptions, the final core assumption here is that the individual is the sole agent capable of changing his or her thoughts, and thus bears full responsibility for their thoughts, thus their actions, and thus the ramifications of their actions, including the wider societal effects of such actions.
While internally consistent with the logic of the social justice worldview which flows from it, this core assumption does not have any basis in reality whatsoever. Let’s think about what thought really is: The human brain is a roughly 1.4kg mass comprised of billions of neurons. Each neuron is connected to thousands of other neurons, with electrical impulses firing very rapidly between them based on stimuli coming from outside the brain. This incalculably massive amount of electrical interaction between neurons forms conscious thought, which is not at all abstract from real matter, as that is all the brain is: matter. If we, like any serious scientist, accept Newton’s laws as valid, then we accept the behavior of all matter is due to its interaction with other matter. The behavior of brain matter (the substrate where thought occurs) is thus determined by matter that is outside the brain, and all that matter subject to influence from other matter in accordance with the universe’s natural laws. The only thing separating the brain from the rest of the material world outside the brain (as far as science has discovered so far) is the order of complexity in input and output parameters the brain can handle.
But what does this have anything to do with social justice, though? Well absolutely everything, it turns out. Thought does not exist in a vacuum, or as some sort of abstract phenomenon that is outside the realm of the physical, because the brain and the electrical activity of its neurons are physical in nature. It is absolutely no different than the physical, and so the core social justice worldview assumption, that the thoughts of an individual are purely controlled by that individual, is not valid. For if thought is ultimately determined by the maelstrom of physical action and reaction that defines our universe, then that means that the thoughts of an individual are the result of their material conditions. Thus, the onus of societal change does not rest upon some metaphysical abstraction of the ideal acting through a person’s physical form, it depends on modifying the physical world as we know it.
If thoughts are construed from the material, then how are thoughts changed? Well, by the changing of the material reality around the brain of course. Luckily, since our brains and thoughts are also material phenomena, they are capable of changing the material world outside the brain. To bring things back to the topic of the essay at hand, this means that all of the mechanisms by which oppression takes place have their roots in the material world. The causes of injustice, of bigotry, suffering, etc., can all be traced to a physical cause. To understand the system at play here, we must understand the manner in which the material world dictates to our society — the systems used to coordinate the manipulation/working of matter, and the way matter is distributed with respect to individuals within human society. Marxists call these systems “the mode of production,” which at this point in history is capitalism.
The proof we can control the mode of production, while it also controls us, lies in the fact that the mode of production has changed several times before arriving at its current configuration, which of course changes the way society looks drastically (life under capitalism would be utterly alien to someone living under feudalism, which would itself be wholly different than to a slave society), whereas human physiology, and thus the structure of our brains, has not changed much during these shifts in modes of production.
Ultimately, in all modes of production, social norms are more or less (though not exactly, given our ability to reciprocally modify our environment) construed from what allows individuals to continue existing within that mode of production. If we compare the modern world to that of feudal Europe, for instance, we see that social norms at that time were quite different, based on the feudal population’s need to adjust to their own material reality versus us to ours. We can see abstractly how the mode of production can structure a society by virtue of it being observable in history, but how does our current mode of production, capitalism, today, cause the types of social injustices that the social justice critique aims to resolve at this point in history?
Classical liberals considered the capitalist market to be a mechanism by which individuals in a society could, through balancing forces of supply and demand, satisfy their material needs by buying and selling and producing goods and labor power with a set of minimum “rights” guaranteed by a governing body. This understanding of the market, much like the idealist notions that underpin both classical liberalism and social justice critique, have zero basis in reality. Historically we can see that capital has an accumulating tendency, whereby wealth tends to concentrate in the hands of those who hold wealth, a self-perpetuating dynamic. The areas that industrialized first, that had capitalism develop as the primary mode of production, were in Western Europe. Peasants flocked to the cities to become proletariat just as fast as money went in the hands of the bourgeoisie, while conditions were abysmal for workers. The inherent unsustainability of this dynamic led to the formation of a strong nation-state apparatus to facilitate the establishment of markets abroad which the domestic bourgeoisie could then use to further enrich themselves. The nation state has from its inception served to accumulate domestic capital, and this holds true today, as the imperialism of the wealthiest countries serves to suck as much capital as possible out of less-developed countries.
Though the proletariat is exploited by the capitalist system for surplus labor value, proletarians derive their ability to exist by selling their work, and thus their day-to-day survival is dependent on the well-being of their employer. The well-being of their employer depends on the well-being of the accumulation apparatus, in this case the nation-state. Nation-states compete internationally with other nation-states that have their own domestic bourgeoisies. Workers indirectly compete with workers from other countries, and thus encouraged to “otherize” them. Centuries of this have caused and catalyzed the ethnic tensions we see today.
The nature of wage work is such that workers must pull in a sufficient wage to ensure that their existence does not depend on their families’ agricultural labor to survive, meaning a family is no longer necessary for the worker’s survival. Million-year-old reproductive habits curated by natural selection do not, however, simply die off after a few centuries of production-based pressure, thus the bulk of the proletariat still creates families. The need to rear a child is directly at odds with capitalism, since one cannot easily raise a child while simultaneously performing work for a capitalist. Because of the fact that the female sex is the one who gives birth and provides the infant’s sustenance, the employers generally prefer to hire the male sex, leaving women disadvantaged by capitalism. The material (i.e., biological) reality of sexual dimorphism under capitalism creates a societal norm of women, more so than men, being relegated to unpaid (yet crucial) domestic labor. From this, modern gender roles, patriarchy, and sexism spring forth.
Issues of gender identity and sexuality also find their roots in capitalist norms. The freeing of individuals from the family as an economic unit means individuals who experience gender dysphoria or prefer sexual contact with those besides the “opposite” biological sex have become free to do so without sacrificing their ability to sustain themselves materially, but since this runs afoul of the traditional family model reinforced by capitalistic gender roles, there is of course a societal pressure against doing so.
The stigma surrounding physical and mental disability have an obvious relation to capitalism. The less fit an individual’s body or mind is for completing the often difficult, dangerous, and downright boring tasks set out by the capitalist as part of the work description, the less appealing is this individual for hire by the capitalist, and so disabled individuals have their material options limited through sheer bad luck.
Socioeconomic position, or wealth, is different than these other identities in the sense one can conceivably obtain more wealth through the mechanisms of capitalism, however due to the inherent nature of capital to keep accumulating wealth in the hands of those who already have it, this is easier said than done. Obviously, being poor presents fewer options to someone looking to satisfy material needs than being rich does. So there exist cultural differences between populations with little wealth and those with more.
In the previous section, we discussed the numerous assumptions of the social justice worldview. The three that lie just beneath the surface were: that the existence of societal stratification manifesting itself in the form of “privilege” and “oppression,” with the oppressed being dominated the privileged, and the inextricability of privileged individuals’ identity with oppressiveness. The first is generally true, since capitalism naturally creates these hierarchies. The second is true only in that the inherently oppressive nature of capitalism manifests itself through such hierarchies. The third is false, as the very existence of modern identity groups directly depend on capitalism for their formation and maintenance. So the oppressive dynamic that stems from capitalism does not inhere in the personalities of individuals from oppressive groups. If capitalism were to dissolve, then eventually so would these specific dynamics. The assumptions that underpin these three, looking back, were that ideas are the driving force of societal relations, and individuals control their ideas. We have shown that this is inconsistent with the reality of matter (of which everything, thought included, is comprised), and thus are false.
In the next section we will examine the difference between struggle in the ideological battleground vs the material battleground, and how it relates to social justice activism today.
What “social justice activism” consists in, precisely, is far harder to ascertain than the nature of the critique that it originates from. There is no specific movement that one can point to and say “there it is, behold, the social justice movement!” Instead, the activism of those who subscribe to the social justice worldview is much more diffuse, existing inside countless other political currents, trends, and groups. These can range from functionaries of liberal democratic parties to student protest groups, to university professors pumping out academic papers, to individuals arguing with one another on the internet, to anarchist collectives, and even bumper stickers. The action a social justice advocate takes in these different arenas more often than not focused on the concept of educating others about the oppressive structure of our society. This logically derives from the core assumptions of the social justice worldview — i.e., that to change the structure of society, one must convince enough individuals belonging to that society of better ideas, which will be reflected in their actions.
The so-called “battleground of ideas” has historically mostly been relegated to a distant second place behind the battleground of material need, in terms of efficacy. People’s actions are spurred by a quasi-rational calculus of how best to satisfy their needs. From this comes the “oppressive” behavior of privileged identities directed towards oppressed identities.
Let us examine the shift in gender norms over the past few decades around biological men and women as an example of the supremacy of material factors over ideals in dictating behavior. The woman who demands the opportunity to perform paid labor of some variety that is outside the domestic realm stands in competition with the man who, through the gender roles hoisted on him and the woman by capitalist necessity, would see his share of nondomestic work reduced if he must now compete with women as well as with other men. The increase in female workers in originally male-dominated careers over the last few decades has been because the intensified wealth build-up in the hands of capitalists has led to lower pay and higher costs for the family, which means women in the nuclear family perform paid labor on top of the unpaid labor of childbearing, or else the family starves, since one person’s income has become insufficient. Noble as feminist movements have been in demanding equal standing as men, the shifting gender roles have had more to do with capital than convincing men of their comparatively privileged position under the thumb of wage labor.
In this example we can see that men on aggregate enjoy a privileged status compared to women due to the dynamics of survival under capitalism. The actions of men upholding patriarchal standards serve to keep women in their disadvantaged position, but this is not because men are evil or have evil thoughts. It is because their material reality demands it. Capitalism oppresses both men and women with impunity, though certainly women receive worse treatment due to their role in reproduction. This dynamic, like all the other oppressive dynamics under capitalism, are not solved by merely educating people on oppressive behavior.
But what of social justice advocates who do more than just seek to educate, for instance those involved in nonprofits and NGOs? These are often much closer to affecting material reality than educational efforts, but unfortunately they are also insufficient. Nonprofits and NGOs, even if their stated goal is to bring about some positive material change for an oppressed group, is still subject to the whims of the capitalist system. Salaries must be paid, equipment purchased, and miscellaneous fees and expenses accounted for. The more change an organization wants to effect, the more money they have to accumulate. As these organizations do not generate profit, money must come from groups or individuals that do make profit, like a corporation or a bourgeois philanthropist. This money, like all money, was acquired by extracting profit from workers. The very survival of a nonprofit or an NGO is directly predicated on the system that creates the problems it seeks to solve in the first place. These are not an effective solution for dismantling social hierarchies and establishing a state of social justice.
Capitalism itself must be abolished in order to end oppressive hierarchies, as capitalism dictates the current material reality, and thus actions that perpetuate unjust hierarchies.
What does this mean for social justice activists reading this? It does not necessarily mean that working to convince people to empathize with oppressed groups and be careful in their social interactions is a bad thing. All it means is that this is not an effective method to achieve social justice on any significant scale.
The path away from oppression lies in changing our reality. Of course this is not an easy matter, or else it would have been done already. Unfortunately, there is no easy way forward. Those of us who are exploited by capitalism, and indeed we comprise the vast majority of the planet’s human population, must recognize the true cause of our daily struggles. There is a certain irony in the fact that this essay decries subjective and idealistic approaches for that of the material to conclude with a cry for an enlightened proletariat, but there is a certain amount of subjective work to be done. None of this is to say that those who seek to fundamentally change our mode of production should adopt the tactics of social justice activism to achieve this. This consciousness, that we must dismantle our mode of production in favor of one which dictates the distribution of material based on need instead of profit, does not come from yelling the truths at random passersby, writing vindictive screeds on Tumblr, staging street protests calling for abstract notions of “justice,” or attending workplace diversity seminars. It comes from identifying the areas to which workers are in direct conflict with the mode of production, where their struggle puts them face-to-face with the mechanisms that directly cause their material suffering, and enabling the nascent idea borne of these struggles that they can in fact disable this awful system and establish one that works for everyone. The material conditions must be sufficiently dire to convince the proletariat that the mode of production must change or they will starve.
Every wildcat strike, every group of workers seething at the injustice of their union bosses failing them, and every network of mutual support made by normal people just so they can scrape by is a seed of revolution. Workers have endured a brutal assault, and it seems to become worse by the week. What is needed is water, soil, and fertilizer for these seeds. Organization of the working class, by the working class, in opposition to capitalism, standing united together instead of isolated in sporadic groups, is the only hope there is to dismantle these oppressive hierarchies.