Dislocating the geographies of justice

Clive Barnett

University of Exeter


Texto de referência para o debate na mesa redonda "Os desafios e os novos debates na Geografia Política Contemporânea" do dia 10/12/2020 no Ciclo de Debates Virtuais do IV CONGEO



Claims of injustice


Social justice has been a central theme of critical scholarship in human geography, urban and regional studies, and planning theory since the 1970s. However, spatial theorists are often reluctant to specify the content of justice or other normative standards. While some scholars argue that it is necessary to justify the substance of normative standards, it is more common to assert the primacy of practice as the arena in which the value of justice arises, so that analytical attention is given to the investigation of explicit struggles against injustice. Radical scholarship has strong elective affinities with movements struggling for justice, and it also is consistently wary of the universalizing dimensions of normative political reasoning. David Harvey, for example, suggests that normative issues can be approached in three ways: through philosophical reflection; through the development of frameworks of basic human needs; or through alignment with the ferment of social movements, the route he recommends


In short, in human geography, urban studies, and related fields of spatial theory expressions of injustice through social movement mobilizations are given primacy over philosophical elaborations of justice. I want to suggest that the privileging of practice over theory reproduces a structure of thought in which justice continues to be understood as an egalitarian ideal against which injustice shows up as an absence or deviation. And the practical primacy accorded to expressed claims of injustice inadvertently displaces a model of authoritative, monological reasoning about the meaning of justice from ideal theory onto explanatory accounts and ontologies of space.


It is, then, widely taken for granted that justice is a positive ideal from which injustice is a deviation, an ideal that is only ever empirically registered as an absence. In spatial disciplines, commitment to this ‘normal model’ of thinking about justice is most evident in the stylistic convention of running justice and injustice together as one word - as “(in)justice”.


The idea that injustice appears against the background of an egalitarian ideal, from which injustice is a departure, is a shared feature of what are otherwise quite different traditions of analysis. For example, in strands of radical geography, the insights of alternative ontologies or explanatory theories are meant to supersede what are regarded as the inherently individualizing and universalizing tendencies of normative reasoning about the justifiability of particular social arrangements. Or, in strands of radical empiricism, it is presumed that amassing empirical data on patterns of inequality is equivalent to mapping injustice, the persistence of which is attributed to a set of unjust “beliefs”. And more generally, critical social scientists often assume that injustice becomes visible by comparing actual patterns of disadvantage against ideal theories.


By continuing to think of injustice and justice as laying either side of a division between practice and theory, spatial theorists inadvertently reproduce the form of authoritative third-person reasoning that is the most problematic feature of normative political philosophies of justice. I want here to follow where the logic of an argument about giving conceptual priority to injustice leads when thinking about how geographical thinking might matter to questions of justice. Giving conceptual priority to injustice – where this refers to theorising injustice independently from a prior formulation of an ideal principle of justice, is an emergent theme in certain strands of political thought, shifting away from dominant egalitarian ideals of justice towards a consideration of republican norms of non-domination. This is a shift I have discussed in The Priority of Injustice. Here, I want to consider more explicitly what that shift might mean for conventions of critical analysis in Geography.


The key aspect of this shift in my discussion here is that giving conceptual priority to injustice is associated with an emphasis on claims-making as the dynamic through which relations of domination are challenged. Now, thinking of justice in terms of claims-making might appear, at first sight, to support a view of the spaces of politics that privileges accessibility to classically defined public spaces, not least those of associated with figures like “the city” or “the street”. It seems to invites us to think of claims as being expressed in particular ways, through more or less spectacular performances of presence in physical space.


In contrast, I will argue that giving conceptual priority of injustice as a norm for critical analysis requires a rather more provisional account of the spatial configurations through which claims of injustice can be articulated and vindicated than has become established in contemporary geographical thought. And I will also suggest that this conceptual prioritisation also challenges the prevalent conventions of critique in these fields, where critical analysis is often presented as involving the revelation of the fact of geographical interdependence and the contingencies of existing spatial arrangements.



Geography’s elective affinities


Spatial disciplines have become adept at pluralizing the norms of justice, for example, to include issues of distributive equity, recognition, interactional justice, procedural justice, and care.


Research on environmental justice is perhaps the most advanced field of geographical inquiry in which primacy is accorded to the practical emergence of expressions of injustice. The guiding ethos in this field is a vision of movement-oriented scholarship that is aligned to addressing problems rather than identifying ideals. The focus of attention is on how various standards of justice are strategically developed and deployed by social movements. Likewise, research guided by the idea of “the right to the city” is framed by an assumption that values arise from engaged political action. For example, Ed Soja’s discussion of “spatial justice” tracks how this notion “is being used politically and strategically in social movements of all kinds”. In both fields, the emphasis is on the emergent qualities of normative criteria, and this is associated with a view of claims-making as the medium through which expressions of injustice are articulated.


The recommendation that critical analysis be responsive to the immanent values that express shared senses of injustice should certainly be taken seriously. However, there are two temptations that the practical privileging of injustice can lead us into, and both should be resisted. The first is the impression that one could reconstruct the meaning of justice by tracing the contents of visible expressions of the sense of injustice. The second, and related, temptation is to assume that critical analysis necessarily involves an elective identification with favoured activist voices or with the interests of victims.


Both of these temptations threaten to distract from the conundrum that arises from any assertion of the primacy of expressions of injustice: attending only to expressed claims of harm or injury or exploitation can lead us to pass over the ways in which the dampening of victims’ capacity to express their own experiences of harm and injury and exploitation is often a central feature of unjustifiable power relations. In short, the problem of “epistemic injustice” – that is, of systematically skewed distributions of believability and self-interpretability – complicates any straightforward assertion that analytical attention and normative primacy should be given to expressed claims of injustice.


The practical primary accorded to claims of injustice in critical spatial theory is, then, associated with a form of justification that actually retains many of the most problematic features associated with normative philosophies of ideal justice. This is evident in a particular view of what spatial theory can do for critical analysis. In discussions of “the urbanization of injustice”, “the right to the city”, or “grammars of injustice”, visible expressions of injustice are routinely interpreted as responses to what remain largely taken for granted sources of wrong: capitalist exploitation of labour and the environment; neoliberal governance; intersectional formations of gendered, sexualised, and racialized oppression; accumulation by dispossession. In this recurring form of analysis, the authoritative apprehension of the meaning of injustice is displaced from normative philosophies of justice onto the revelatory force ascribed to explanatory theories of space, or onto alternative ontologies of spatiality, or some combination of both.


Alternative ontologies and explanatory narratives are supposed to be normatively compelling because they demonstrate that things could be different, that things are not as they first appear, and that current arrangements are crossed by histories and contingencies that mean that they could be reconfigured, performed differently, or imagined afresh. Revealing the processes shaping the production of space, the assemblage of constituted orders, and the formation of provisional settlements goes alongside an affirmation of the dynamics of becoming, contradiction, performativity and paradox that are used to both explain the reproduction of fixed patterns and relationships, yet also offer the possibility of transforming them.


This style of analysis is therefore also associated with a particular genre of critique: spatial theory is meant to assist in laying bare the devices through which overarching structures of injustice are reproduced, revealing fundamental sources of injustice by unmasking the exclusionary, naturalizing, or essentializing effects of flat, absolute, fixed concepts of space or identity.


The authority for this revelatory manoeuvre can have different foundations: sometimes it relies on access to a superior epistemology capable to determining the difference between significant and insignificant differences; sometimes it relies on ontological accounts of the necessarily contingent formation of settled orders that give implicit normative priority to the relative openness and contestability of those orders; or sometimes it relies on the idea that the processes of spatialization through which the world is constituted as knowable and actionable in the first place are themselves sources of injustice.


I am assuming that questions of social justice are not open to either epistemological or ontological resolution. To think that they are is a kind of category error. Matters of justice are essentially contested, no doubt, but this is only to say that their significance is unavoidably a matter of appraisal and of judgment. And this implies that political hope should not be hinged on demonstrating the possibility of change per se, supported perhaps by proclaiming the need for a renewal of utopian vision.


My suggestion here is that the primacy accorded to expressions of injustice in geography and related fields does not go far enough. More precisely, it needs to be freed from its continuing subservience to the monological styles of reasoning associated with both normative political philosophy and critical theories of space and spatiality.



Dogmatic egalitarianism in critical human geography


Critical analysis in human geography and urban studies has tended to focus attention on that range of questions about the distributive equity of social and economic outcomes. It has been much less concerned with thinking of justice as a political concept, that is, as inextricably caught up with modern understandings of democracy. One can find intimations of this sense of democratic justice, for example in David Smith’s observation that “An unequal distribution is not necessarily unjust”, or in David Harvey’s well known statement of the problem of developing “a just distribution justly arrived at”. But there are very few explicit considerations of how to arrive democratically at conceptions of what is just, where this involves respecting the pluralism of peoples’ concerns.


Indeed, critical spatial theory often expresses a certain sort of impatience for matters of democratic procedure. For example, Soja’s treatment of the idea of spatial justice dismisses liberal theories of justice, wrongly, as over-emphasising distributive “outcomes” at the cost of the analysis of “process”, and in so doing elides a concern with process in terms of the fair application of rules with a social scientific notion of grasping the causal processes behind the production of inequality.


In short, a social scientific preference for identifying fundamental causes has the unfortunate effect of reducing the meaning of distributive justice to substantive equality in the allocation of divisible socio-economic goods and services. The specifically political meaning of justice, related to ideas of “democratic equality”, is barely mentioned in the engagement with questions of social justice and equality by spatial theorists. The foreclosure of the problem of the democratic justification of normative standards in spatial theories is illustrated by Susan Fainstein’s account of “the just city”. She sets up a stark contrast between democracy (defined as a set of procedures of deliberation and inclusive participation) and justice (defined as a substantive principle of equity). And she is explicit in asserting the “precedence of justice”, in that sense, presented as a standard of equitable outcomes that has precedence over norms of democratic process. Fainstein’s elevation of substantive justice as a principle of evaluation illustrates a structure of thought that is perfectly able to pluralise the criteria to be mobilised – extending these to include ideals of recognition as well as equality, need as well as merit – without addressing the democratic limits of this way of reasoning about justice as an ideal.


To summarise, then, critical spatial analysis expresses a suspicion towards ‘normative’ theorising in ways that enables these fields to assert their superior grasp of the generative dynamics reproducing inequalities – a grasp that is availed them by complex theories of the production of space, ontologies of relational spatiality and the constitutive spatialization of the political, or spatial dialectics.


By contrast, to engage critically with the problem of justice cannot rely solely on having access to superior explanatory or ontological insight. It requires a consideration of thinking of practices of justification as intersubjective affairs.



The priority of injustice


Human geography, planning theory, and urban studies have drawn on ideas from a range of political theorists in the last two or three decades, including writers such as Chantal Mouffe, Nancy Fraser, Seyla Benhabib, Jacques Rancière, James Tully, John Dryzek, William Connolly and Iris Marion Young. What is usually found in the work of these thinkers is a willingness to insist on the importance in political life of “power”, or “difference”, or “antagonism”, or “affect”. What is given less attention is the various pictures of public reasoning presented by these thinkers. Attending to this issue transforms the sense of the idea of justice that might be available to us.


Two decades ago in the midst of debates in geography about difference, relativism and universal values, Iris Marion Young asserted “To invoke the language of justice and injustice is to make a claim”. It is here, in this sort of argument about the grammar of justice-talk, that we can begin to specify just what giving conceptual priority to injustice implies for critical inquiry.


There are two initial points that need to be underscored about the theme of the conceptual priority of injustice. First, giving conceptual priority to injustice requires shifting away from an idea that the currency of justice is some form of divisible set of primary goods, or resources, or rights, or even capabilities. It requires instead thinking of matters of injustice and justice as primarily to do with questions not of what people have but of how they are treated. Giving conceptual priority to injustice involves thinking about how social relations, institutional arrangements, and norms systematically disadvantage some persons as participants in shared practices of public life. And, second, giving conceptual priority to injustice also involves focusing on the ways in which questions of justice always involve claims made by one party on other agents - claims about the justifiability of a state of affairs that call for vindication of certain sorts. And the significance of claims-making to the view of the priority of justice lies in the presumption that the meaning of injustice is necessarily arrived at through intersubjective engagement.


To be clear, then, I am suggesting that ontological styles of theory and explanatory theories of spatiality share a third-person, monological style of reasoning with avowedly normative styles of political philosophising. To fully appreciate the significance of the conceptual prioritization of injustice over ideals of justice requires a reconsideration of the grammar of justice-talk, one which draws into view the importance of second-person, dialogical styles of reasoning.


To reiterate, saying a situation is unjust does not necessarily imply a reference - implicit or explicit - to a standard of ideal justice. Thinking that we must in advance have a standard against which to judge affairs gets the grammar of justice the wrong way around, and it always leads back to the idea that justice is some kind of ideal. Justice-talk is, in a strong sense, rhetorical – as Hannah Pitkin puts it, “The meaning of “justice” has to do with what people intend to convey in saying it, not with the features of the phenomena they say it about”.


On this view, injustice is understood not as an absence of justice, just as illness is not an absence of health. Injustice is a positive condition, arising from an experience of injury of some kind or, more broadly, from an “abhorrence of wrong”. Justice is something developed not to satisfy an ideal standard – either an a priori principle or an emergent one - but as response to situated expressions of injustice. To put it another way, justice is not an ideal at all. It is an all-too-human condition that is approached through processes of repair, recognition, redress, reparation, and redistribution. On this understanding of the grammar of justice, giving conceptual priority to claims of injustice involves affirming the passionate dynamics through which political action is generated as a response to varied forms of harm, injury, or mistreatment. This, of course, might resonate with current interests in spatial theory in political affect, emotions and feelings.


Now, it should be said that two difficulties arise from any simplistic affirmation of the passions. First, the emphasis that is placed on forms of passionate expression in arguments for the priority of injustice seems to make judgment a purely capricious matter. This appearance is only heightened when one notices that the “sense of injustice” often starts out from negative emotions, such as anger, indignation, resentment, or vengeance, rather than empathetic or sympathetic ones. Second, privileging passionate claims of injustice draws into view the risk of reproducing epistemic injustice, since any straightforward valorisation of explicit cries of injustice precisely because such valorisation risks obscuring the structures of harm that stifle the expressions of some actors.


Combining these two difficulties, it becomes clear that giving priority to claims of injustice runs the risk of merely lending a normative sheen to the grievances of those with the loudest voices. Taken together, both issues therefore demand a further clarification of the idea of ‘making claims’ claims’ that is so central to the project of giving conceptual priority to injustice. ‘Claims’ has a double significance in this project.


First, the idea of claims at work here implies that matters of justice arise in contexts in which existing patterns of power are contested through the voicing of objections of one form or another. In this sense, claims are asserted against felt injustices. But, second, the idea of claims of injustice also refers to the notion that these claims are, indeed, assertions - that is, they are claims made on the attention of others, and as such are subject to a democratic test by being passed through the medium of argument and debate. Crucially, the proposition that claims of injustice can be assessed as to whether they are warranted is not just a matter of determining epistemological certainty or even normative validity. It follows instead from a view in which practices of justification are made central to the experience and articulation of injustice as injustice.


The double sense of claims, as assertions made and processed, throws into view the importance of thinking of claims of injustice as arising from and being processed through intersubjectively mediated, shared inquiry. Injustice is, in short, a thoroughly public phenomenon. And this observation leads us back to the question of how to think about the geographies of claims of injustice.



What shape is public space?


What makes a state of affairs unjust - to those immediately on the receiving end of domination, exploitation, or violence as well as to those called upon to act in response to such states of affairs - is not the reference to a prior construction of what counts as a properly just arrangement.


The conceptual prioritization of injustice in critical theory rests on a commitment to the idea that harms and violations and wrongs are experienced, felt, expressed, assessed and vindicated in situations of intersubjective interaction – they are public matters. Giving conceptual priority to injustice in critical analysis, in the sense I have outlined here, therefore compels us to adjust the normative assumptions through which geographical thought continues to apprehend the spatialities of public life.


Thinking in terms of claim-making might at first sight seem to support an understanding of public space that privileges accessibility to classically defined public spaces, in so far as we think of claims as being expressed in standard ways, through protest or demonstrations or other forms of more or less spectacular presence in physical space. But the double significance of claims as assertions alerts us to the fact there is more to political claims-making than practices of assembly, dissent, encounter and protest. The emphasis on practices of justification as the mediums in which injustice is experienced and articulated therefore disrupts the political significance usually ascribed to figure of spatial co-presence - “the city” or “the forum” or “the street”.


Accounts of the dynamics of capitalist urbanization, or ontological accounts of processes of exclusionary spatialization, often posit a homology between urban space as both the arena in which injustice is produced and the stage upon which it is best resisted. But the spaces in which injustice is apprehended and justice is enacted are stretched-out over space and time – they are distributed spaces of recognition, justification and vindication. Critical inquiry into the geographies of injustice therefore requires an appreciation of the variable relations between three analytically distinct dimensions of political action: the spatial dynamics involved in the generation of inequalities and injuries; the spaces through which those patterns are translated into expressions of injustice; and the spatialities of the practices that seek to vindicate claims of injustice by crafting just courses of legitimate action.


The sort of spatial imagination one needs to fully cash-out the conceptual prioritisation of injustice is one which focuses upon circulations and articulations, not spaces of presence so much as spaces of on-going re-presentations. Once one stops thinking of claims of injustice narrowly as only expressions of a demand, claims making is opened up include a whole set of processes through which claims are responded to, processed, adjusted, acted on, and above, made authoritative and find legitimacy – a complex geography of practices of mobilisation, demands, deliberations, compromises, deals, decisions, and revisions.


From the perspective I have discussed here, justice is something that is done: therefore, far from thinking of fields of governance, policy implementation, or decision-making as examples of post-democratic ‘police’ administration, we would be better advised to think of myriad practices of administration, government, management – of rule – as always involving claims and counter-claims, and as perfectly capable of generating a dynamic of democratization (or its reverse).


To conclude, the focus on claims-making involved in giving not only practical but conceptual priority to injustice requires an acknowledgement of all of the ways in which the spatialities of political action exceed the romantic preference for images of assembly and demonstration and protest. The geographies of justice emerge through the combination of spaces of mobilisation and agitation, deliberation and compromise, bargaining and deal making, decision and delivery, accountability and revision.


The argument in favour of according injustice primacy over ideals of justice therefore requires giving up on the scholastic presumption that it is possible to arrive at monological determinations of justice against which worldly inequities can be revealed and condemned. It requires, instead, taking up anew the challenge of thinking democratically about justice once presented by David Harvey, in his recommendation to pursue “a just distribution justly arrived at.” There remains an unfulfilled potential for working through the dual aspects of that formula, a path not followed by established conventions of radical critique in Geography.

Av. Athos da Silveira Ramos - Cidade Universitária, Rio de Janeiro - RJ, Brasil

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