The Paradox of Distributive Social Justice, and What Is To Be Done?

Thinking For A Living: A Philosopher’s Notebook 15

By Robert Hanna

“Diogenes Sheltering in His Barrel,” by John William Waterhouse



#14: How a priori knowledge is really possible.

#13: Is a priori knowledge really possible? Yes; here’s proof.

#12: Is human free agency really possible? Yes; here’s how.

#11: What is democracy?

#10: Fear, loathing, and Pascal in Las Vegas: radical agnosticism.

#9: The philosophy of policing, crime, and punishment.

#8: The philosophy of borders, immigration, and refugees.

#7: The philosophy of old age.

#6: Faces, masks, personal identity, and Teshigahara.

#5: Processualism, organicism, and the two waves of the organicist revolution.

#4: Realistic idealism: ten theses about mind-dependence.

#3: Kant, universities, The Deep(er) State, and philosophy.

#2: When Merleau-Ponty Met The Whiteheadian Kripke Monster.

#1: Introductory; The rise and fall of Analytic philosophy; Cosmopolitanism and the real philosophy of the future; How to socialize the philosophy of mind.


289. The paradox of distributive social justice, and what is to be done? Here is a basic problem, indeed, a paradox, about distributive social justice in any social institution or State, but especially including contemporary big-capitalist (neo)liberal democratic States — as enshrined philosophically, for example, in John Rawls’s highly influential and indeed, as regards Anglo-American political theory since the 1970s, hegemonic, Theory of Justice.[i]

290. In their Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on “Distributive Justice,” Julian Lamont and Christi Favor very correctly although somewhat tautologously note that

[p]rinciples of distributive justice are … best thought of as providing moral guidance for the political processes and structures that affect the distribution of benefits and burdens in societies, and any principles which do offer this kind of moral guidance on distribution, regardless of the terminology they employ, should be considered principles of distributive justice.[ii]

Correspondingly, the basic problem I will now present and briefly elaborate is what I call The Paradox of Distributive Social Justice.

291. Simply put, The Paradox is that insofar as principles of distributive social justice are applied to an oppressive social system, then even despite its ideological overlay of “justice-as-fairness,” this actually turns out to be the most effective way to perpetuate the oppressive system itself.

More explicitly, with the ideological overlay in shudder-quotes:

Suppose that an oppressive social system OSS exists in any State, such that there is an oppressor class who collectively and individually greatly benefit from OSS, and also an oppressed class, who collectively and individually greatly suffer under OSS. And further suppose that the leading members of the oppressor class in OSS recognize, at a given time, that OSS is in serious danger of collapsing if things go on in the same way. So the leading members of the oppressor class calculatingly and prudently create a “fair and therefore just” system of compensating a certain non-trivial but still strategically small number of more-or-less randomly-selected members of the oppressed class, by giving them access to some or all of the benefits enjoyed by the oppressor class. Then this “fair and therefore just” distribution of compensation for oppression not only does nothing to fundamentally change or end OSS, it actually turns out to be the most effective way of perpetuating OSS.

In this formulation, the italicized phrase more-or-less randomly-selected is extremely important: inevitably, there are hidden criteria that pre-select prospective oppressed-class beneficiaries for conformity, docility and obedience — for example, their having secured proper legal immigration status; their having reached a certain level in the oppressors’ education system; their having a “clean” drug record; their having a “clean” police record more generally; etc., etc. — hence the “fair and therefore just” selection process is itself already carefully curated by the leading members of the oppressor class.

292. Another paradoxical feature of the oppressor-class-curated character of the compensation process under distributive social justice is that the oppressed groups selected for compensation are identified under the very same labels–race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc., etc.–that the oppressor-class originally picked out arbitrarily in order to target those people for rationally unjustified and immoral discrimination and oppression.

Hence the very “identities” that oppressed groups then adopt as special sources of moral virtue and social solidarity for the purposes of qualifying for distributive social justice, are in fact nothing but mirror-reflected versions of the arbitrary discriminatory point-of-view of the oppressors, that “internalize the oppressor,” and only produce further coercion and conflict via mirror-reflected discrimination and mirror-reflected oppression.

The currently popular concept of “intersectionality,” which emphasizes ways in which members of different identity-groups can suffer the same kinds of oppression and the same kinds of failures to respect their human dignity, and thereby find social solidarity in that way, is rationally and morally more cogent than identitarianism; but it remains, at best, an unstable halfway-house between internalizing-the-oppressor on the one hand, and a fully universalist and dignitarian approach to the problem of oppression on the other.

293. An important corollary of The Paradox is that if the leading oppressors fail to act in this calculating and prudent “fair and therefore just” way, then their oppressive social system eventually collapses.

For example, let OSS be the enslavement of black people in the USA in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Then The Paradox guarantees that if, in the early 19th century, the leading Southern American slave-masters had, contrary to actual fact, seen the writing on the wall, then calculatingly and prudently created a “fair and therefore just” system of admitting a certain non-trivial but still strategically small number of more-or-less randomly selected slaves either into the oppressor class of slave-masters, or into a complicit class of fairly well-paid, fairly high social-status bureaucrats, professionals, managers, or skilled laborers who served the class of slave-masters, the USA would never have experienced the Civil War of 1860–65, and would still be a slave State, at least throughout most of the South.

Of course in actual fact the slave-masters did not do this, so the oppressive system of slavery in the USA collapsed — although, to be sure, a new system of racist oppression soon arose to take its place, during the Jim Crow period.

294. Now let OSS be big capitalism in Europe and North America.

[Important sidebar: by big capitalism I mean basically what Marx meant by “capitalism,” now extended to what the neo-Marxists called advanced capitalism, that is, global corporate capitalism.

Contrastively, by small capitalism I mean:

modest individual ownership of private property, sufficient to one’s true human needs and individual tastes; small-scale business enterprises for the production of goods and the provision of services that satisfy and sustain people’s true human needs and individual tastes; modest individual profit-making accumulation of wealth sufficient for the satisfaction of one’s own true human needs and individual tastes, and those of the members of one’s household or family; and modest collective profit-making and collective profit-sharing enterprises (aka cooperatives), sufficient for the satisfaction of every worker’s true human needs and individual tastes.

On my view, small capitalism is perfectly consistent with a social system in which human work is not only not alienating, but in fact human-dignity-respecting and liberating.

Hence my critical view of big capitalism, although obviously Marx-inspired, is not a classical Marxist view.]

Then we can ask: Why didn’t big capitalism in Europe and North America collapse due to its internal dialectical social and economic contradictions by the late 19th century or early 20th century, as Marx had fervently hoped and confidently predicted?

295. The answer, clearly and distinctly, is provided by The Paradox.

The leading late 19th and early 20th century big-capitalist bosses, rightly worried about communism, calculatingly and prudently created a “fair and therefore just” system of admitting a certain non-trivial but still strategically small number of more-or-less randomly-selected members of the working class or below, aka the proletariat or lumpen proletariat, either into the oppressor class of capitalist bosses, or into the complicit class of fairly well-paid, fairly high social status bureaucrats, professionals, managers, or skilled laborers, who serve the class of big-capitalist bosses.

This is confirmed, at least for the USA, by empirical data about about the size and specific constitution of the American working class during the 20th and 21st centuries.[iii]

They called it “upward social mobility” and then more recently, “equal opportunity.”

As a consequence, distributive social justice not only did nothing to fundamentally change or end big-capitalist oppression, it actually turned out to be the most effective way of perpetuating it.

That’s a paradigmatic example of The Paradox of Distributive Social Justice in action.

296. Now I’ll re-ask Chernyshevsky’s and Lenin’s amazingly hard social-political question: what is to be done?

My answer is that in order to reverse big-capitalist economic oppression, what’s needed is not a distributive social justice mechanism for most effectively perpetuating the system of big-capitalist economic oppression itself, under the ideological overlay of “justice-as-fairness,” that also generates internalization of the oppressor and mirror-reflected discrimination and oppression by creating identity-driven social solidarity groups, but instead a radical universalist, dignitarian solution that saliently advances the devolution and dismantling of big-capitalist (neo)liberal democratic Statism itself.

What kind of radical universalist, dignitarian solution am I talking about?

I’ve worked out a detailed existential Kantian cosmopolitan social anarchist proposal in part 3 of Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism.[iv]

But bounded in a nutshell, for the purposes of this set of notes, my proposal is this:

A truly generous Universal Basic Income, together with universal free healthcare and universal free higher education, all of them funded by highly progressive taxation and radical reductions in military spending, etc., would not only end poverty and radically reduce income-disparity, but also make it really possible for people of any economic or social class, race, ethnicity, gender-identity, sexual-preference-identity, age-cohort, etc., to exit the system of big capitalism, by simply refusing to become “economically productive” good little do-bee workers within it. And instead, they could pursue what I call lifework.

297. So what is lifework?

On my view, human work is

any form of creative, productive, or otherwise energy-expending rational human agency or performance (roughly, intentionally changing or moving oneself or other things, in the natural or social worlds), under the presupposition that every human worker is a real human person, inherently possessing human dignity, and not a mere instrument or a mere thing, whether the work itself is undertaken freely or under some sort of coercive compulsion, and whether it is undertaken for purely instrumental or for non-instrumental purposes.

In turn, are two basic kinds of human work, namely jobwork and lifework.

Jobwork in general is whenever a human worker receives money in return for creation, production, the provision of services, or any other rational human agential/performative energy expenditure, especially including working for a salary or wages.

Of course, this covers all jobs under capitalism, whether big capitalism or small capitalism, and whether self-employed or employed by someone else.

Lifework, by contrast, is some creative, meaningful activity (aka a project), or a series of such activities (aka projects), pursued as a full-time, or almost full-time, lifetime calling.

Simply put, lifework is whatever you would choose to do for the rest of your life if you were freed from financial worries.

And the basic function of jobwork is to enable and support lifework, although, to be sure, one’s jobwork could also be chosen as one’s lifework.

Relatedly, it is absolutely crucial to note that lifework is an exceptionally broad category, including anything from raising children or otherwise caring for other people, to carpentry and all other sorts of craftsmanship, to nurturing or tending non-human natural processes or creatures — for example, bee-keeping, animal-husbandry, forestry, or gardening — to playing games or sports, to making or performing music, to painting or sculpting, to writing literature of any kind, to making movies, to studying and writing history, to philosophy.

What is essential to lifework is that it involves creative, meaningful activity.

Therefore, lifework substantially overlaps with the category of human play, which is often falsely opposed to human work.

On the contrary, insofar as play is creative and meaningful, it can also be lifework.

298. So what I am saying is that a truly generous Universal Basic Income, together with the other social provisions I mentioned, all funded by highly progressive taxation and radical reductions in military spending, etc., would make it really possible for people to exit the big-capitalist system for the sake of their lifework, and at the same time radically devolve and transform big capitalism into a fundamentally different, non-oppressive, universal, and dignity-respecting social system.

Ironically and tragically, however, the hegemony of the theory and ideology of distributive social justice, much beloved and obsessively disseminated by contemporary classical liberals, communitarian Rawlsian liberals, identitarians, neoliberals, centrists, and Establishment power-elitists of all stripes, is doubtless the most cognitively effective way of preventing most people from ever recognizing this radical solution to the economic oppression of big capitalism.


[i]J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1971).

[ii] J. Lamont and C. Favor, Christi, “Distributive Justice,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), E.N. Zalta (ed.), available online at URL = <>.

[iii] See, e.g., A. Rowell, “What Everyone Should Know About America’s Diverse Working Class,” Center for American Progress Action Fund (11 december 2017), available online at URL = <>.

[iv] R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise, aka THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, Vol. 4 (New York: Nova Science, 2018), PREVIEW.



Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Saturday 22 December 2018

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