Is justice a process or an outcome?

Black and white photo of Grace Reinke
Grace Reinke is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. She studies political theory, American politics, and public law, with an emphasis on contemporary feminist political theory and labor mobilization. Her dissertation research considers the many forms that capitalist extraction takes in the current moment of US political economy, and looks to Social Reproduction Theory as developed by Marxist feminists as a means for understanding instances of resistance against those extractive systems.
There is no more ubiquitous understanding of our shared ethical and political commitments than the frame of rights-based justice. Especially under the modern hegemony of liberal thought and politics, political theorists and philosophers especially, often imagine justice as the only (or most) permissible outcome of human action - whether in community or by an individual. What makes justice such a satisfying mode of reckoning with our commitments to each other? There is certainly something tempting -- satisfying, even -- about conceptions like Philosopher John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance (1971), and the way it gives us a means or a tool by which to perceive the elusive original position. Or Onora O’neill’s re-tooled conception of the Lifeboat Earth (2016) to get us to consider the roles of states and citizens as actors in the dense system of obligations that makes up the foundation for global justice.

These tools are satisfying, of course, in the way that all axioms or proofs of logic or basic philosophical principles are. They help us to see the process of justice as a clean means by which to organize the world, and in so doing often obfuscate the messy, fraught, ongoing, and even dangerous processes by which we know “justice” as we traditionally think of it, gets meted out. Justice, when imagined as the correct outcome of the above formulations and others like them, is thus imagined as the result of a reasoned and rational system; a system that is blind (or perhaps at least veiled) to the kinds of complications that arise when we establish and administer political communities. The simplest way to say it, of course, is that philosophical justice is tidy, while the kind of justice required to live among other humans and non-human animals certainly is not. But this hegemony of liberal justice, and its attendant drive to find the simplest and most universal way of providing it, does more than look past our untidy political worlds. The process of justice, and our often knee-jerk reaction to seek it out in all cases, also plays a role in containing those aspects of life that make up the backdrop of philosophers’ rhetorical tools.

Theorist Sheldon Wolin suggests that this containment isn’t just a side effect of these conceptions of justice; it is in fact a central feature of our modern conception of democracy, especially as it operates in the US. For Wolin, the constitution, especially as imagined by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke, which empowers those formal political actors to act on behalf of the rest of us, represents at base the boundary of what can be considered associated or embedded within the democracy itself. This vision of democracy also crucially relies on a process of concealment, wherein issues and events are continually sorted in piles deemed political, realistic, or worthy of discussion, versus those questions that are simply out of our collective political bounds. In explaining how constitutions and democratic institutions exist most centrally as tools of boundary-setting, he writes:

Political leadership is both the management of collective desires, resentments, anger, fantasies, fears, and hopes, and the curatorship of the simulacra democracy. The political is focused upon an organization of power that guarantees domestic peace and security, including the security of the state … and that is continually trying to reconcile or conceal the contradiction between the state as a symbol of justice, impartiality, and the guardian of general welfare -- the steady state -- with a dynamic politics that registers the intense competition that pervades not only the economy but cultural formations as well. (1996, 33).

The constitution, or the boundary in whatever form it might take, is central to Wolin’s understanding of democracy in its most “acceptable” form, as the fugitive democratic process he imagines, with countless interests and competing factions and formations of power, is unlikely to be tamed by procedures and dependable institutions. Indeed, he tells us, these actions of bounding or limiting democracy renders that which makes democracy the expression of a group or community’s political desires largely incoherent. For this reason, he argues democracy itself is almost always “occasional and fugitive.” Fugitive democracy, and its corollary fugitive justice, is then a helpful, if cynical frame for understanding how, at a time when it seems like so many aspects of our communal life are being questioned, we remain mired in the containment of democracy and justice rather than their substantive enactment.

Since democracy - in its contained or limited form - serves as the means by which to enact or enforce a system of justice, our collective inability to imagine and respond meaningfully to issues that require a relatively unruly or destabilizing idea of justice comes into stark relief. It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, then, that after a summer of even-louder-than-usual calls for the abolition of over militarized, unaccountable police departments and immigration detentions agencies, we see the proliferation of institutional task forces, informational web pages, committees, and discussion panels as the go-to methods for enacting justice for communities most endangered. Here even on the relatively small scale of the university, where the unruly and messy process of justice might have more purchase, these questions get worked out almost exclusively through these institutional conduits for discussion rather than through any meaningful reckoning with the material circumstances of injustice, which are indeed life and death in the case of communities of color in the US. We all become witness to this contained process of institutional democracy and its bounded justice. As a result, the prospects for justice that we see entering the formal political sphere time and again, get refracted through our ostensibly democratic processes, and contorted into symbolic artifacts, rather than material threats to unchanged systems of state, cultural, and institutional power.

Here we see that our collective reliance on the contained system of political justice rather than its fugitive counterpart, not only renders invisible the messy and complicated projects of making material change in response to meaningful objections (the bedrock assumption of justice among philosophers), but it also transforms those objections into symbolic inputs to be filtered through and publicly debated, rather than meaningful demands. This is an important distinction, because, as any advocate of justice will admit, meaningful demands carry with them responsibilities and obligations which members of a political community are thus bound to meet. Those obligations are especially binding for those who face far less risk in the face of persistent institutions like policing and other tools of social control - White Americans in the example at hand. But, those are the very obligations that fall through the cracks as this clean, tidy, and institutionalized vision of justice grinds on.

If we take seriously the idea that justice looks less like an institutionalized process with only public deliberation as its outcome, and more like an unruly and perhaps fleeting pursuit of material change, we might be willing to accept ostensibly non-political acts as vital to the improvement and continuation of our democratic processes. This fugitive form of justice, and the politics it requires, forces us to look to the streets, the university classroom, our family homes, the factory floor, the bus stop, as settings for discussing, understanding, and enacting the obligations that arise amid deeply and persistently unequal systems of power. This would also open up the possibility of meaningful objections to these processes, or would at least widen the range of individuals or communities who are able to register those objections. At a time when it seems only the tidiest forms of justice are imaginable to those whose power is at stake, considering the way justice can operate beyond the boundary of the Wolin’s constitution and its delimitation of political action, is perhaps the only means by which to wrest justice from its tamed states in favor of the material change we see being demanded over and over again.

Benhabib, S. (Ed.). (1996). Democracy and difference: Contesting the boundaries of the political. Princeton University Press.
Rawls, J. (2009). A theory of justice. Harvard university press.
O'neill, O. (2016). Justice across boundaries: Whose obligations?. Cambridge University Press.
Wolin, S. S. (2018). Fugitive Democracy: And Other Essays. Princeton University Press.