On justice

Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Is life fair? And given that the answer to that question appears to be no, should it be fair, and if so, can we make it fair? These are questions on many people’s minds right now, and I don’t think they are as straightforward as people think. Let me expand on that.

To quote Miss Prism from The Importance of Being Earnest, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Which is to say that we all know that isn’t how things usually go. For every Mussolini hanging upside-down from a lamp-post, there are a hundred Stalins dying in their own bed. Injustices occur daily, and very few of them are ever punished.

I’m not talking about the unfairness of, say, a child dying of leukaemia. I’m interested here in the injustices perpetrated by human beings on other human beings. This still leaves me with a very wide field of enquiry, of course, and it seems to be getting wider all the time. And this is not surprising.

As the pie shrinks, those who have most of it have the most to lose. They are therefore doing their best to keep what they have, and indeed to grab more. The rich are getting richer. This means that the rest of us are getting poorer, because we have less and less of a pie that is getting smaller and smaller. Flannel about a glorious future of prosperity for all is getting less and less convincing. If you’ve watched the film Don’t Look Up, you may remember the speech where the weirdo tech billionaire waxes lyrical about how his scheme to capture and mine the incoming asteroid for rare minerals will end world poverty, and we all know perfectly well it wouldn’t, even if it worked: all it would do it make him even richer.

Let’s just pluck a couple of examples from the recent UK news. Britain has, or more correctly used to have, substantial oil and gas deposits under the North Sea. This was an obvious opportunity for the oil and gas industry to make a lot of money, and you would imagine they would need no urging to take it. But the government decided that the industry should get massive tax breaks anyway – it has emerged that between 2018 and 2020 Shell and BP paid no corporation tax on their North Sea operations, and somehow got rebates on the tax they didn’t pay to the tune of £400 million. Effectively they were being paid to take the stuff away.

Was this equitable? Norway also had some access to North Sea oil and gas, and they decided to put the profits into a fund to be used for the benefit of Norwegians.

This looks even worse when you look at the forthcoming rises in energy bill for British households. These prices are subject to a government cap, but this cap is to be raised by a chunky 54%, equating to an additional £700 a year for the average household at a time when, according to the Office for National Statistics, the poorest fifth of the population has suffered a drop in income over the past decade. This handy graph shows how the richest fifth did rather better:

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to work out that a lot of people in the UK are going to have trouble paying their bills. The government clearly felt that they ought to be seen to be doing something about this, but their answer is a bizarre scheme of Byzantine complexity which is manifestly going to fail to help large numbers of those affected, while incidentally taking money away from local government. Their main aim seems to have been to take the edge off the immediate pain without spending much money or indeed addressing the underlying issues.

And this is completely par for the course. A gulf is opening up between the rich and poor, and it’s a gulf of mutual understanding as much as anything else. Government ministers can tell themselves that they have been generous because they have no idea what it’s like to have to choose between food and heating, for example. And this kind of cluelessness is going to end up with heads on pikes if they’re not careful. I am not seeing many signs of carefulness.

Nor is this a UK-specific problem. President Macron sometimes appears to be channelling the spirit of Louis XVI, and the news of Canada’s Prime Minister being evacuated by helicopter from his own capital also does not suggest a man with confidence in the people he governs. US politics has notoriously been captured by the rich; the difference between Republicans and Democrats is much the same as that between Coke and Pepsi – neither will do you much good. When a multi-millionaire property developer with strange hair can capture the Republican nomination and win the Presidency by representing himself as being more in touch with working people than mainstream politicians, it’s pretty evident that the system simply isn’t working for many Americans.

Of course the rich and powerful have been oppressing the poor and weak for as long as these categories have existed. The fulminations of the prophet Isaiah weren’t original even in his day. It may be that industrial civilisation even requires this to occur – attempts to run it on ostensibly more egalitarian lines were not a success in the Soviet Union or its satellites.

You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.

The Man With No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

I am not suggesting that the demise of industrial civilisation will make this kind of thing magically stop. I do think that it may be easier to resist, at least in certain places and at certain times. And if we have that opportunity, we should take it, to the best of our ability. Perfect justice is an ideal that we will never attain, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Doctors still try to heal people even though all of their patients will eventually die, and I for one am very glad they do.

Will there be blood? I am afraid so. Will innocent people suffer? Yes, they will. As the wheels come off, a process which already further under way than many people imagine, a lot of people are going to get hurt. In theory there are nice ways to achieve the inevitable transition to a sustainable way of life, but they don’t seem likely to occur. So there will be blood, and injustice, and suffering. But just possibly something better will emerge on the other side, if we keep hold of some of our key principles. And justice, it seems to me, is one of the more important. Our rulers forget that at their peril.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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