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Abnormal Justice

by Nancy Fraser


for Richard Rorty, an inspiration in more ways than one



In some contexts, public debates about justice assume the guise of normal



However fiercely they disagree about what exactly justice requires in a given case, the contestants share some underlying presuppositions about what an intelligible justice claim looks like. They share ontological assumptions about the kind(s) of actors who are entitled to make such claims (usually, individuals) and about the kind of agency from which they should seek redress (typically, a territorial state).


In addition, the disputants share assumptions about scope, which fix the circle of interlocutors to whom claims for justice should be addressed

(usually, the citizenry of a bounded political community) and which delimit the universe of those whose interests and concerns deserve consideration (ditto).


Finally, the contestants share social-theoretical assumptions about the space in which questions of justice can intelligibly arise (often, the economic

space of distribution) and about the social cleavages that can harbor injustices (typically, class and ethnicity).


In such contexts, where those who argue about justice share a set of underlying assumptions, their contests assume a relatively regular, recognizable shape.

Constituted through a set of organizing principles, and manifesting a discernible

grammar, such conflicts take the form of “normal justice.”


Of course, it is doubtful that justice discourse is ever fully normal in the sense just described. There may well be no real-world context in which public debates about justice remain wholly within the bounds set by a given set of constitutive assumptions.


And may never encounter a case in which every participant shares every assumption. Whenever a situation approaching normality does appear, moreover, one may well suspect that it rests on the suppression or marginalization of those who dissent from the reigning consensus.


Nevertheless, and notwithstanding these caveats, we may still speak of “normal

justice” in a meaningful sense.


By analogy with Thomas Kuhn’s understanding of normal science, justice discourse is normal just so long as public dissent from, and disobedience to, its constitutive assumptions remains contained.


So long as deviations remain private or appear as anomalies, so long as they do not cumulate and destructure the discourse, then the field of public-sphere conflicts over justice retains a recognizable, hence a “normal,” shape.

By this standard, the present context is one of “abnormal justice.”


Even as public debates about justice proliferate, they increasingly lack the structured character of normal discourse.


Today’s disputants often lack any shared understanding of what the authors of justice claims should look like, as some countenance states and communities, while others admit only individuals.


In the same way, those who argue about justice today often share no view of the agency of redress, as some envision new transnational or cosmopolitan institutions, while others restrict their appeals to territorial states.


Often, too, the disputants hold divergent views of the proper circle of interlocutors, as some address their claims to international public opinion, while others would confine discussion within bounded polities.


Likewise, present-day contestants often disagree about who is entitled to consideration in matters of justice, as some accord standing to all human beings, while others restrict concern to their fellow citizens.


In addition, those who argue about justice today often disagree about the conceptual space within which claims for justice can arise, as some admit only (economic) claims for redistribution, while others would also admit (cultural) claims for recognition and (political) claims for representation.


Finally, today’s disputants often disagree as to which social cleavages can harbor injustices, as some admit only nationality and class, while others also accept gender and sexuality.


The result is that current debates about justice have a freewheeling character.


Absent the ordering force of shared presuppositions, they lack the structured shape of normal discourse.


This is patently true for informal contests over justice in civil society, where it has always been possible in principle to problematize doxa–witness the affair of the Danish cartoons, which is better grasped as a species of abnormal discourse about justice than as a clash of civilizations, on the one hand, or as an exemplar of liberal public reason, on the other.


But abnormality also swirls around institutionalized arenas of argument, such as courts and arbitration bodies, whose principal raison d’être is to normalize justice–witness the dispute among the Justices of the US Supreme Court in a

recent death penalty case over whether it is proper to cite opinions of foreign courts.


In these examples of clashes over basic premises, deviation is less the exception than the rule.


Far from appearing in the guise of anomalies within a relatively stable field of

argument, abnormality invades the central precincts of justice discourse.


No sooner do first-order disputes arise than they become overlaid with meta-disputes over constitutive assumptions, concerning who counts and what is at stake. Not only substantive questions, but also the grammar of justice itself, are up for grabs.


This situation is by no means unprecedented. Even the most cursory reflection suggests some historical parallels. One prior era of abnormal justice in Europe is the period leading up to the Treaty of Westphalia, when the feudal political imaginary was unraveling, but the system of territorial states had not yet been consolidated.


Another is the period following World War I, when nascent internationalisms collided with resurgent nationalisms amidst the ruins of three major empires.


In those cases, absent a secure and settled hegemony, competing paradigms clashed, and efforts to normalize justice did not succeed. Such cases are scarcely exceptional. It is likely, in fact, that normal justice is historically abnormal, while abnormal justice represents the historical norm.


Nevertheless, today’s abnormalities are historically specific, reflective of recent

developments, including the break-up of the Cold War order, contested US hegemony, the rise of neoliberalism, and the new salience of globalization.


Under these conditions, established paradigms tend to unsettle, and claims for justice easily become unmoored from pre-existing islands of normalcy.


This is the case for each of three major families of justice claims: claims for socio-economic redistribution, claims for legal or cultural recognition, and claims for political representation.


Thus, in the wake of transnationalized production, globalized finance, and neoliberal trade and investment regimes, redistribution claims increasingly trespass the bounds of state-centered grammars and arenas of argument. Likewise, given transnational migration and global media flows, the claims for recognition of once distant “others” acquire a new proximity, destabilizing taken-for-granted horizons of cultural value.


Finally, in an era of contested superpower hegemony, global governance, and transnational politics, claims for representation increasingly break the previous frame of the modern territorial state.


In this situation of de-normalization, justice claims immediately run up against counterclaims, whose underlying assumptions they do not share.


Whether the issue is redistribution, recognition, or representation,
current disputes evince a heteroglossia of justice discourse, which lacks any semblance of normality.


In this situation, our familiar theories of justice offer little guidance. Formulated for

contexts of normal justice, they focus largely on first-order questions.


What constitutes a just distribution of wealth and resources? What counts as reciprocal recognition or equal respect? What constitutes fair terms of political representation and equal voice?


Premised upon a shared grammar, these theories do not tell us how to proceed when we encounter conflicting assumptions concerning moral standing, social cleavage, and agency of redress.


Thus, they fail to provide the conceptual resources for dealing with problems of

abnormal justice, so characteristic of the present era.


What sort of theory of justice could provide guidance in this situation? What type of theorizing can handle cases in which first-order disputes about justice are overlaid with meta-disputes about what counts as an intelligible first-order claim?


In this essay, I shall suggest a way of approaching questions of (in)justice in abnormal times. What I have to say divides into two parts.


First, I shall identify three nodes of abnormality in contemporary disputes about justice. Then, I shall formulate three corresponding conceptual strategies for clarifying these abnormalities.