Is justice a process or an outcome?

Black and white photo of Chandan Reddy
Chandan Reddy is associate professor in the departments of gender, women, and sexuality studies and the comparative history of ideas at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is coeditor (with Jodi Byrd, Alyosha Goldstein, and Jodi Melamed) of the special issue, "Economies of Dispossession: Indigeneity, Race, Capitalism," Social Text (Spring 2018). His book, Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality and the US State (2011) from Duke University Press, won the Alan Bray Memorial Book Award for Queer studies from the MLA as well as the Best Book in Cultural Studies from the Asian American Studies Association, both in 2013. He is currently at work on a new book project titled Administrating Racial Capitalism.

Justice, Coloniality, Repair: Notes on the Now

What is justice, and how is it achieved? This is a question that besets and troubles any movement for change or transformation. And, across the twentieth-century, varied projects—from state socialism to fascism to postcolonial nationalism—have crafted their answers to this question as they sought redress from the chronic violence, thefts, and crises of world-wide western capitalism. In many ways, our lives and our imaginaries of struggle are defined by these formations as we fumble to address contemporary inequities and crises across the globe. And, westernized-man-made climate change has only intensified these inequities, now transforming crises into extinction events. Westernized-man-made climate change, also known as the geological era of the Anthropocene or Capitalocene, has brought one million different species of life to the brink of extinction. For the last three hundred years, Westernization and capitalism have refined and continuously expanded “society” for the human community while abandoning for death any life whose first and primary crime has been its mere existence—that is, whose crime is that it exists without value or meaning for westernized-man.
In this context of Capitalocene, we must add to the question of, “what is justice and how is it achieved,” a more fundamental question, which is “for whom or for what is justice?” Who or what can lay claim to it? As orcas and caribou teeter on the verge of extinction in the Pacific Northwest from increasing settler-housing stock, westernized farming, and energy consumption, does it make sense to ask if these species qualify for justice? And, even if they do, how are we to imagine the terms of that justice, let alone what it might be?
When asking for whom or what justice can be given, we are immediately faced with the limits of our imaginative abilities, even if such limits are not the same as the barriers to thought that monotheism and anthropocentrism have jointly erected in a post-Enlightenment age. Yet, our encounter with these uncrossable limits allows for a redoubling of our steps back towards justice itself to ask about its very nature, history, and meaning. The western philosophical tradition cites the Institutes of Justinian, a codification of Roman Law from the sixth century AD, where justice is defined as “the constant and perpetual will to render to each his due” (Miller 2017), indicating that justice addressed to individuals has a social character, existing whenever and where ever more than one person or subject resides, and a calculus. Indeed, in An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, the British empiricist David Hume engaged the central paradox of justice when he noted that only in a world of limited abundance where the needs of each cannot fully be met does the question of justice even arise. Using a decidedly anthropocentric faculty, Hume opined that in an imaginary and hypothetical state of abundance where “every individual finds himself fully provided with whatever his most voracious appetites can want,” “the cautious, jealous virtue of justice would never once have been dreamed of” (Hume as quoted in Miller 2017).
Justice seeks out a social appropriation that can satisfy want and desire. In the liberal Anglo-American tradition, this jealous virtue justified settler colonialism. In the writings of John Locke, we can observe the logic of colonial justice: for him, anything other than the “perpetual and continuous” acquiescence of Indigenous peoples to western man’s drive to make society—at all times and in all spaces—was a hostility and anti-sociality tantamount to a declaration of war, permitting society acts of war-making, land-taking, and gendered violence in conformity with virtues of justice (Lowe 2015). We might term this the “coloniality of justice,” where society composed of the many arranged by a just appropriation for each is permitted only to westernized man whose violent and bloody self-expansion and accumulation becomes indistinguishable from his effort to provide and protect social justice.
It can be easy to imagine that we are no longer in the grips of these liberal theories of justice, clear-headed that in society one cannot exclude Indigenous, Black, or other racialized people from society and its global expansion, if justice is to be conceived, enacted, and delivered. However just it might be to offer inclusion to those denied it, can we think beyond this inclusionary gesture, especially when it touches communities whose violation was justified precisely by their supposed hostility to society? It has often been those groups most deprived of or violated by the just institutions of liberal society—for whom “we” substitute prisons, jails, foster care, detention centers, and service provision for good schools, top universities, fine galleries and museums, family wealth, and urban leisure—that preserve and maintain a disposition towards thinking beyond justice, beyond a just calculus, and toward practices of repair, however unjust.
Today, the loss of Black lives at the hands of police—Rayshard Brooks, Manuel Ellis, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Charleena Lyles—has galvanized a movement to decriminalize Seattle and support Black social thriving. By this, they mean ending our current system of providing social justice, one that continues to imagine police as a social necessity within an inclusive and anti-racist community, ever protected from the anti-social violence society’s expansion and inclusionary openness haplessly encounters. Going beyond the common understanding of police, this effort to “decriminalize” Seattle demands a rigorous and unlimited interrogation of the myriad ways in which our practices of making society with each other, of creating a just world, is dependent upon forms of blocking (caging), marking, and surveillance against those whom “we” imagine offend with their anti-social behavior. Indeed, this movement builds on the vision of the Duwamish and Coast Salish peoples and their diasporic Indigenous kin from the lands now called Alaska with whom they and “we” live in this region.
In 1865, the Seattle Board of Trustees passed Ordinance Number 5, which banished all Duwamish, Suquamish, and Native peoples from the city and prohibited their presence without having in their possession at all times a white employer’s permission. Today, Coast Salish and Alaska native peoples have the legal right to live within Seattle’s borders. They are free to move like all city denizens, which has amounted to their being disproportionately subject to forced wandering and impoverished wages, as people overrepresented in homelessness and over-policed. Indigenous pleasure-taking in and from “mere life” is defined as an anti-social afront to the city’s laws (such as when the police killed John T. Williams for the enjoyment of carving wood in the city limits). Coast Salish and Alaska native people’s cultural memory directs us all to understand decriminalization as different than and antithetical to legalization, and inclusion as coloniality in changed form. Against an inclusionary “justice,” they practice the difficult work of repair with each other and with settlers, unbeknownst to “us.”
Decriminalize Seattle similarly is not a movement for social justice but rather one of repair— a movement that seeks to repair the frayed lives and lifeways created by our prior movements for multicultural justice that have culminated in expanding the state’s protections. Decriminalize Seattle is a movement in defense of all Black lives—immigrant and U.S.-born, waged and unwaged, criminalized and free, cis- and Trans identified, housed and unhoused, straight and gay. While the work that lay ahead will invariably have its tragedies—as it already has—it strives to replace the drive for multicultural social justice with decolonization, in solidarity with Indigenous struggles. It substitutes the jealous virtue of justice with an even more difficult attitude of unjust repair. It imagines a world without the police of society so that those who deserve justice (having been its non-westernized victims for centuries) can teach “us” how collective life is and can be conducted without it, in its shadow, knowing that otherwise the jealous though eminently reasonable desire for justice will continue to kill some of “our” kin.
Works Cited:
Lowe, Lisa. 2015. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham: Duke University Press.
Miller, David. 2017. “Justice”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.),