What Is Justice?
There is some contention, it seems, that justice is no longer justice, that reality is no longer reality. What is peace? What is justice? What is democracy? These questions lose themselves in the sea of news about the Grand Jury decision in the death of Breonna Taylor. Officers are shot, injured, etc. And how many of the protestors were shot, how many injured? How many times have we watched those same guardians of justice beat people bloody in the street, murder in cold blood, and occupy the black communities already oppressed by white supremacy? How many times do we have to watch the same scene over and over again, where another New Afrikan person was gunned down without a thought, and the protests become violent? How many times do we watch and watch and come to the same conclusion, over and over again? Perhaps, then, it is the conclusion that is flawed. White settlers watch over and over again as the colonized are brutalized, sterilized, and what have you, and do absolutely nothing about it.
How privileged it is to see justice as a victimless crime. How arrogant we are to presume that justice is not violence. It seems, then, that we need to inquire into the establishment of the prison system. While I much despise Foucault, his book Discipline and Punish is very prescient. It is interesting how no matter what, these bourgeois liberals seem to view justice as this stern, immutable principle, incorrigible, without violence, without passion. This was not always the case, as Foucault points out; the means of justice at points was increasingly attached to the pain experienced by the prisoner punished in that society. It is only after the first attempts to establish bourgeois capitalism, and subsequently in the development of ideas of “laws of nature” that justice became sanitized. The society now attempts to view justice as impartial, that any violence on the hands of the state in the act of punishment, is a stain upon that society itself, a proof of moral deficiency.
This idea of justice has pervaded throughout the establishment of American society. Indeed, in a statement to the press, the Attorney General of Kentucky stated that “if we simply act on outrage, there is no justice — mob justice is not justice. Justice sought by violence is not justice. It just becomes revenge.” Perhaps, then, he has ignored the long history of the creation of justice.
The establishment of justice in the settler-colonial world was one which was not blameless, not sterile, not just; justice in the settler-colonial world was established out of a genocidal rage. If we go back to the times of settlement, we will conclude a single fact, that justice was established and enforced, not through unbiased, impartial institutions, but institutions shaped by certain economic and political ties. The institutions of justice during the times of the Revolutionary War of the United States, were suspended, and new provisional governments were established by landed white elites. Land and political rights were increasingly intertwined as property restrictions were instituted in all states by the signing of the Constitution. The first police, if we wish to term it so, were fugitive slave brigades. The second police, the second harbingers of justice, were the white settler militias in the frontier, exemplified by those in the Ohio Valley. They were originally a security force in a disputed region, ruled primarily by the indigenous peoples. They had “bought” the land (it is still difficult to establish the nature of land rights among each individual tribe) and received the rights to settle it from their imperial government. So the first attempts to establish “justice” if we may term it so, were these attempts to establish the political power of the white race.
As we may conceive of it, there is a history to the establishment of justice, and it stems from very economic conditions; namely the conditions of colonization, then the transition of economic control to the capitalist class away from the feudal elite, and finally, in the shift towards the imperialist class structure, internationally and internally. This complex mess of material relations brings about the ideas of the modern society. Liberals seem to have this mountainous arrogance that their ideas of liberty and justice are correct, that their principles are the ones which will last forever. It is not only ignorant to the development of these concepts in the past, but it is ignorant to their possible development in the future. However, let us continue back to the colonial times, and how economics drove frontier justice. The United States is a unique nation, not because it experienced some grand delusion of liberty, but in its annihilation of the indigenous peoples. The laws of the United States, particularly along the frontiers, were designed to build and maintain the power of the settler classes.
The first bodies of enforcement of this settler power were the settlers themselves. They developed in a hostile environment, encircled on all sides by a people they found foreign; the indigenous peoples, for the most part, sided with the British during the Revolution, and the Americans, especially militia and white squatters fought, ultimately, in the defense of their white property. They fought, in other words, for Land, and thus, for political power. The first attempts at the enforcement of laws within the United States were against two groups: the native peoples and the slaves they ruthlessly wrought from Africa, and this, at that time, was viewed not only as just, but as an extension of the natural law, the law of God.
The whole idea of justice builds itself upon a certain structure; we see it classically in Aristotle’s politics, where he ultimately decides that some groups are naturally inclined towards servitude. He decides that in order for society to function in a certain state, that there must be a class of slaves, and, more importantly, that the ownership of slaves is just. These wonderful abstractions of justice and morality serve the ruling structure quite well. It gives them this unsullied “reality” towards which they should strive, some higher purpose, fulfilling the virtue-signaling of the liberal-bourgeois society. If we are to look to Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, we come to the moral problem that there is something incredible in the nature of evil — that it is banal, not extraordinary. Her contentions is that the abstract concept of evil does not exist in a vacuum. When the Germans “treat us to hysterical outbreaks of guilt feelings,” they are not acting out of real guilt, but responding to conditions they experience in their material lives (251).
There is, consistently, this higher ideal of “justice,” of “truth,” but never an inquiry into where these terms, these ideas come from. Nothing comes from nothing. These terms cannot be logically reasoned; indeed, if we want to be incredibly contrary and impractical, nothing at all can be reasoned logically outside of our society’s current material circumstances. All our “justice” our “truth” assumes one certain thing: the universality of values across these material circumstances. Thus, justice cannot be just, and truth is untrue. They are placed on a pedestal with a certain material agenda, with a certain consequence, not in a vacuum, not independent of the human societies in which they exist.
These values are not static, unchanging objects; they have very real roots, and these roots, ultimately, are not in the soul, in the spirit of humanity. It would be nice if we could study “the spirit of humanity,” but we can’t even define it, so it would be pretty useless. What is justice, then? What is truth? These are very important questions, and we can only express the answers in our own lived experience. The question “what is justice?” takes on a very different tone when you watch a trans man and his husband shrink in fear from their landlords, get foreclosed upon by a banker who neither knew nor saw them, the working husband lose his job because he smokes weed to manage his epilepsy. The question takes on a different tone altogether when the material circumstances are life and death. And what of these concepts of “justice” in the wake of that series of events? All people acted within the confines, not only of the law, but within those of the spirit of the law. Where has justice gone?
And now there is silence, that silence that mourns the dispossessed. Do they care for our white bourgeois concepts of “morality” when it is that very morality that damns them to their graves? Why should they care about law when the law refuses to protect them? What should they care for property when they own little of it, if indeed they own any at all? What of the dispossessed? What of suffering? Is that just? Is it justice to watch landlords evict a single mother and her two children, as a New Afrikan woman was recently evicted so? Perhaps, then, the conclusion is not that we need to act “justly” but that our very notion of “justice” is bankrupt in the first place. To believe that justice exists above all the pain and suffering of the world is incredibly naïve. The whole idea of justice is shaped by our experiences. All of our opinions are shaped by experience. Few people are willing to dispute that.
Justice and morality, like all other opinions, are not absolute, and unshifting laws. They are a means of warfare, tools in the material world which are used to manipulate human behavior, to repress and oppress those who fill certain social roles in production. Ultimately, the whole of justice, the whole of morality, are means of pacifying one class or another. If the white settler class is told it is just, that it is moral, it writes upon all of its settler neighbors and friends that shared morality, that shared class consciousness, and when the colonized person contradicts them, they act in solidarity with their settler class. So when we talk of justice, we are talking, not about some abstract ideal. We are talking about something that is real, that is mired in the suffering and hatred of the world; it is full of prejudice and spite, just as people are. There are no ideals not attached to the people that have them, and those people are not isolated from their society. So all these ideals are not universal, not the expressions of some abstract impartiality, but very partial, very consequential to the maintaining of a certain social organization that has proven fatal to millions of New Afrikans and indigenous people.