Why is it that progressive and leftwing groups so often forget about social justice? They obviously do know the problems of poverty and inequality, the difficulties on the labour market, the lack of decent housing in most global cities of the world, and so many more. It is certainly not a lack of knowledge that makes them focus time and again on the economy, on trade, on climate, on migration, imperialism and colonialism. I have written about this enigma before, and the easiest explanation is to state that all above mentioned topics are interconnected. And no, social protection is not a privilege of colonial states that used the wealth of their conquests to distribute among their citizens. Social protection is the result of a permanent social struggle.
Yet, with a down-to-earth view on today’s world, listening to what people demand, all over the world, I want to claim that social justice and peace need to be central topics for all governments and international institutions. It is not a coincidence that the preamble of the ILO Constitution starts with the statement that no lasting peace is possible without social justice.
With the many horrible wars going on at this very moment, it is worth taking a closer look at the possibilities we have for solving some of the problems. All conflicts, without exception, have their roots in a feeling of injustice, whether because of lost territory or because of discrimination and exclusion of people. If a State is described as one of ‘Apartheid’, no one can be surprised that groups of people commit acts of violence in order to resist and redress the denial of equal rights.
Moreover, it goes without saying that all people, all over the world, prefer a situation of peace and stability in which they can thrive, develop livelihoods, make plans for the future and for their children. Peace, then, is the very first reason why social justice should be number one on the priority list of all political authorities.
There are many other reasons why it should be.
First of all, social justice is needed to fight poverty and inequality. Poverty has become the major formal priority on the international agenda and is also a major concern in a majority of countries. However, as neoliberal policies have shown, such as the ones promoted by the international financial institutions, based on the promotion of growth through privatisations and deregulations, much more is needed to eradicate poverty. Our current world is so extremely wealthy that poverty has become unacceptable, anywhere. It means the focus should shift from growth to social justice policies, with economic and social rights, public services, decent labour laws, allowances for those who cannot earn an income on the labour market and specific social assistance measures for the poor. It cannot be enough to just ‘fight’ and ‘reduce poverty’, poverty should be prevented and totally eradicated, which is perfectly possible. As long as economic policies are creating poverty, it is absurd to do as if, end-of-the-pipe, one is trying to fight it. No one is born poor but too many people are made poor. That is why the economic system should be designed in such a way that all can find a place in which to contribute to the collective welfare and well-being.
The economy is indeed the next point to focus on. Surely, a market economy can have good results without taking into account the inequality it creates. However, comes a moment, as we witness today, in which huge parts of the population cannot follow anymore, in which housing becomes too expensive, in which health care becomes unaffordable, in which education becomes polarized… No society can thrive with inequalities threatening to create a system of Apartheid. If changing the economic system is not on the agenda, social justice has to correct the inequities the system creates. Ideally however, the different policies needed for doing so will change the economy, most importantly with moving different sectors and services from the market to the public sphere. Public services such as health care, education, public transport or housing are excellent tools of social justice policies that create more fairness in society and directly impact the economy. Every society will have to decide to what extent changes are needed, to what extent the economy can focus on care and abandon the gross domestic product as its only benchmark. Clearly, social justice will be at the heart of all reflections on the type of economy one wants to develop. How to distribute and redistribute wealth?
Migration will be another policy priority requiring more social justice. Thousands of people are drowning in the Mediterranean and The Channel each year, thousands are dying on their way to the United States, and thousands are suffering when leaving their homes without the resources to reach a safe country. The other side of the same coin is the growing xenophobia and racism in many of the receiving countries, making life extremely precarious for the people directly concerned and creating conflicts in societies that are more than rich enough to give all a decent way of living.
Much has already been said on the connection between ‘development’ and ‘migration’ and it will indeed not be enough to create more growth to make people stay in their cities and villages. Moreover, it is not only the lack of economic perspectives that make people move, but also climate change and violence. For all these problems, social justice will be part of the answer. No one is willingly leaving his or her home and family if there are no compelling reasons for it. If people’s livelihoods are protected and promoted, the problem of mass migration can be solved.
Climate change is another problem closely connected to social justice. We have all the scientific and technological knowledge to be able to introduce the best available policies. What is not so easy is to change the behaviour of corporations and of societies. Both will need to be convinced and be helped to abandon harmful practices, be it in production or in consumption. It is clear that no corporation will willingly abandon its possibilities to make a profit, as not one single family will voluntarily accept to give in on comfort, welfare and well-being for the sake of saving the climate. Economic policies will have to tackle the problems of corporations. For families, social justice measures will be needed.
As we have witnessed in the past decades, it is not enough to promise people more ‘happiness’ as much of the happiness people experience comes from the material welfare that our economies provide for. As the ecological movement knows very well, climate justice and social justice go hand in hand, but this is not translated yet in simultaneous social compensatory measures for climate adaptations. If we want to have climate policies adopted and embraced by the population, they should come with simultaneous social justice measures. If not, the serious inequalities that already exist in our societies will only be worsened and social protests may follow, including the rejection of environmental measures. Social justice is the basic condition for the adoption of climate justice policies.
Finally, the most important argument to mention in favour of social justice is human rights. This is also the main dividing line between left-wing and right-wing or neoliberal policies. When reading the documents of the World Bank or of the European Union, both in favour of social protection, it is clear their main goal is an economic one. Social protection promotes the productivity of workers and facilitates growth. This is certainly true, but can it therefore be its only objective? The Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the UN Convention for Economic, social and Cultural rights both mention social security as a human right, as well as ‘an adequate standard of living’. This should remain the first objective of all social justice policies. It is also why it is not enough to fight extreme poverty and condone the huge inequalities in our societies. This dividing line between the economy and human rights explains why institutions such as the World Bank only look at minimal social protection and refuse to look up when talking about inequalities.
All these topics, from human rights to peace, climate, migration and the economy are indeed interconnected. But whatever major problem in our societies is examined, it rapidly becomes clear that social justice is at the heart of any sustainable solution. Another economy will not spontaneously lead to social justice. Peace cannot be the consequence of only a geopolitical agreement. The threat of climate change cannot disappear without compensatory measures. Migration cannot stop if people have no decent perspective for themselves and their children.
Today, some aspects of neoliberal policies are slowly being abandoned. This is the right moment to focus on policies that promote peace and stability, on policies that go beyond poverty reduction and fights on inequality that do not tackle the rich. Poverty and inequality are political problems and need political solutions.
All people, wherever they live, have basic needs and want to live in peace. Today these simple demands are not met for billions of people. All people, wherever they live, are concerned about their incomes, their jobs, their houses, their health, their pensions. Why not try to solve major problems that go beyond the avoidance of conflicts and promote our living together?