Distribution and Social Justice

Mark Peel's book the Lowest Rung paints a paradoxical picture of desolation and hope for those living in poverty in some of Australia's outer working-class suburbs. Highlighting the hardship and insecurity of their lives, his ethnographic history gives voice to people whose lives are shaped by chronic unemployment, stigma, and legends of heroism. His principal concern is to stress the political decisions that made these towns this way, thus challenging the notions that poor people are either disempowered victims of inevitable circumstance or immoral perpetrators who deserve their own fate. He writes, "In order to do justice we must reject the fantasy that poverty is deserved" (Peel 2003, p. 10). His fundamental premise is that poverty is not self-inflicted but results from unfair and unequal social structures. The theory of justice with which he ends his book comes directly from the voices of the unfortunate who experience injustice.

One of the crucial themes running through the book is that the oral histories of poor people are ignored rather than listened to. The media and politicians create "poverty knowledge" and focus on welfare reform without true consultation with the people. Poor people are portrayed in these sources as a moral threat. The focus is on measuring poverty rather than listening and proposing actual remedies to the structure of injustice that has been emplaced and keeps them mired in a negative situation full of stigma, humiliation, surveillance, rules and distrust. The description of disadvantage reinforces negative images of the poor, creates what Peel calls "the performance of poverty" which is the way poor people are forced to develop deceptive stories and actions to get the aid they need, and does not lead to the rectification of injustice. On the whole, his discussion is balanced between a government with its negative social service institutions and workers and those good outsiders within the political structure who make legitimate compassionate efforts to get resources for the poor. He highlights the sense of community and personal dignity among the marginalized poor, contrasting this with their displaced anger toward the wealth outsiders and the government which seems uncaring and more concerned with efficiency. His study dovetails nicely with Fraser's view since most of the poor he interviews are migrants or ethnic groups for whom economic deprivation and cultural marginalization come together in a complex structure that requires reconfiguration not only of socioeconomic systems but also systems of cultural representation (Fraser 1995). Like Fraser, he sees poverty as a complex mix of economic and cultural patterns that create a doubled oppression. He does not go as far as Fraser, however, in addressing the cultural needs.

Without question, Peel's oral history critiques the poor planning, management, and resource allocation of the housing authority and other agencies. Social policy has generally only increased the concentration of the poor, blamed the community itself, and stigmatized the tenants without providing a way out. He questions the magnification of nostalgic heroism since it does not ask anything of those with power to change. Nor does it hold them to the same moral standards as the poor themselves, but allows the structures to go uncontested. His research points to this double standard, where the poor are subject to accountability that the rich are not. He says that "it helps to make each poor person the subject of a moral investigation, a test of their responsibility for their situation, without ever demanding a similar investigation of the structures that manufactured their poverty in the first place" (Peel 2003, p. 86). Peel's argument that poverty is sourced in unjust social structures is clear here. Furthermore, the government operates out of an attitude of distrust. Instead of decreasing dependency and heightening freedom, self-respect and self-determination, its policies subject the poor to intrusive moral investigations, force deceptive performances to describe their entitlements that perpetuate self-fulfilling prophecies, and change nothing. He writes, "The mania for obedience and the emphasis on testing people's entitlements, they argued, helped create the very lack of initiative and reliance on social workers that some considered impoverished peoples' chief deficiency" (Peel 2003, p. 94). For example, welfare agents' obsession with policing and forced proof of suffering leads only to further humiliations for the poor and prevents the agents from providing true advocacy. He describes the complex procedures as a "ponderous structure of unreasonable obligations and irrational sanctions" (Peel 2003, p. 94). The latter parts of the book point out the demoralization that social structures inflict on poor people, as for example in the uncontrolled loss of manliness and withdrawal for the unemployed male that comes with a recession in which blue-collar jobs are replaced by insecure, part-time, non-specialized positions.

One of the limitations of Peel's discussion is that he does not truly get at the historical heart of the structures of inequality. He spends most of his time critiquing the structures such as welfare and housing authorities that are designed to help people rather than turning his sights to corporate capitalism or the professionalization of government. These are mentioned cursorily, of course, but are not subject to radical critique. Further, his belief that the limitations of people are the result of an unequal social arrangement does not truly suggest actual political changes that might help. To label the political structures as negative, disrespectful, and inadequate is a valuable negative critique, but it must be accompanied with a real proposal that does not rest at the theoretical level. While it is true that governments are typically concerned with efficiency of resources and accountability which limit empowerment, listening, and rights, his alternative suggestion that the poor should be trusted and listened to cannot be the ultimate solution. He writes, "If we actually listen to the voices of people who suffer injustice, then our conception of justice might have to change" (Peel 2003, p. 165). Yet a more pragmatic solution is necessary which he does not suggest, and the proposal for social justice he hints at is left rather abstract.

At the end of the day, Peel believes people have a right to social services and better opportunities, but that the irresponsible government is not being restructured to enable this transformation. The political and moral decisions that keep a system of poverty in place are not changing in response to the voices of the poor. They are locked into the notion of natural inequality -- a notion that Hayek promotes through his notion of the spontaneously acting impersonal marketplace. Hayek writes, "In a free society in which the position of the different individuals and groups is not the result of anyone's design -- or could within such a society not be altered in accordance with a principle of general applicability -- the differences in rewards cannot meaningfully be described as just or unjust" (Hayek 1976, p. 83). Hayek believes that unequal distribution is the result of chance and individual talent. Peel would disagree with Hayek, believing that luck and inheritance should be minimized through the redistribution of wealth and through better social controls over the marketplace. He sees economic and political structures, including free market capitalism, as inherently moral, not free from moral judgment. Fair, distributive, and procedural notions of justice that bestow dignity, trust and intelligence on the people should become a more integral part of the social structure as opposed to Hayek's notion of separating politics and economics and keeping government wholly out of the equation. In Hayek's economic view, inequality is the inevitable and amoral result of a free market, whereas Peel would insist that inequality is the function of unjust decisions that could be made more just and cannot be kept out of the equation. The political structures supporting capitalism contribute to personal advantage at the expense of the common good. To this extent, Peel's argument is far more communal than individualist, and implicates intentional social processes in the creation of inequality. His position is aligned with Wainwright's view that knowledge, along with justice, are collaborative social constructions that should be controlled and predicted by social justice.

Peel's view of social justice aligns itself also with Rawls. The free market economy is not critiqued as such, but he assumes that its current configuration, intertwined with a noxious politics of business, should work toward greater social equalization. Freedom and inequality are not in conflict. He would support Rawls' principle of fairness, as described by Callinicos, by which individuals have equal right to equal basic liberties, and in which socioeconomic inequalities are arranged to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. In other words, Rawls asserts something like "Inequalities require justification by the benefits they bring the least advantaged" (Callinicos 2000, p. 46). What is important is that these equalities compensate for inalienable talents, not just the means of production, and are not validated for higher reward unless they are used for the least advantaged. Peel's theory of justice reiterates this.

At the same time, it is limited in its critique of capitalism. Peel does not go near as far as Wood…