What about the deserving rich?

In 1988, the majority of Britons couldn’t name their MP – but a staggering 92% of the population knew the name of an ANC leader imprisoned 6000 miles away in Robben Island. Fast forward to 2005 and more people wore white Make Poverty History wrist-bands than voted for the government. There’s a deep internationalist tradition on these islands, but in 2012 the 99% have shut the door.

One reason for that is obvious; when our homes, jobs and savings are threatened instincts of self-preservation will tend to crowd out the generosity of spirit on which all solidarity actions depend. It is no accident that both the international anti-globalisation movement and the Jubilee and Global Call to Action Against Poverty movements which succeeded it all experienced their peaks during the long boom.

Across the Western world insecurity is breeding insularity – but also exposing that progressives have a different account of fairness from the public whose interests we claim to champion.

One report from Oxfam – A Safe and Just Space for Humanity – argues that we must learn to live above a social floor but below a planetary ceiling, in a state of ‘justice’ where nobody has so little their life cannot be tolerably sustained, but nobody consumes so much that we are all endangered. It is informed by earlier work by Alex Evans of New York University’s Centre for International Cooperation in which he argues that climate constraints mean we need an account of how to allocate ‘fair shares’ of the resources and wealth which currently exist instead of assuming a long-term consensus on growth.

These interventions are highly provocative, intelligent and timely, but we need to recognise that justice and fairness are not technical variables to be measured but political concepts to be struggled over. They are the most fiercely disputed terms in politics precisely because most public policy debate boils down to justice as fairness versus justice as desert – is ‘justice’ secured when everybody has an equitable share, or when people get out roughly what they put in?

This is the tension which animates public policy debates from welfare reform in Britain to immigration in South Africa  and given the political brutality with which the definition of ‘fairness’ is contested inside nations we can hardly hope to define it away when it comes to relationships between them.

That means the thinkers and activists of the global justice movement need an answer for the American car worker who believes he has ‘earned’ more carbon space than the Bangladeshi villager by virtue of making goods the rest of the world wants to buy. We won’t find an answer which will satisfy him until we accept it’s neither a philosophical abstraction nor a question capable of being settled by development ‘science’. Instead this is politics in the raw; the struggle about who has what, how they got it, whether they should keep it and with what legitimacy it can be taken away.  The fight to frame justice – not just the campaign to secure it – is the battle we need to win now.

This entry was posted in Climate and resource scarcity, Economics and development by Kirsty McNeill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kirsty McNeill

Kirsty McNeill is Save the Children's Director of Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns. She was a Downing Street adviser for three years. She has written on politics, campaigning and international affairs for outlets including The Telegraph, Observer and New Statesman and is on the boards of the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. You can see more of her writing at www.kirstymcneill.com.