Is ‘Social Justice’ enough for Social Democrats?

By Dimitris Tsarouhas

Our debate on equality is useful and necessary.

Useful because it allows progressives to step a little bit back and seriously debate whether they have not succumbed to the temptations of contemporary capitalism a bit too easily. Necessary because the rejuvenation of social democracy goes through critical reflections on the past and present of its political practice.

The concept of ‘social justice’ is nowadays often used by social democracts across Europe and beyond as reflective of the movement’s values and a marker for progressive politics. Its endorsement is meant to suggest that social democracy is in tune with popular concerns in an age of increased insecurity and is willing to drive foward its progressive package of legislation in different public policy areas to enhance the feeling of justice among the electorate.

So far so good. Yet ‘social justice’ is inadequate, precisely because it can mean (too) many different things to different people. If one concentrates on the political use of the term, leaving aside the rich and exciting debate on the philosophical interpretations of the concept, what does ‘social justice’ actually embody or, to put it simply, does the concept serve social democratic purposes as opposed to an anodyne, liberal interpretation of the common good?

Take the example of public sector layoffs to balance the books. Such a policy is rightly viewed with suspicion among social democrats, yet it can be  justified in the name of a socially just policy seeking to reduce barriers in the labour market between the core of ‘privileged’ civil servants and the market-exposed ranks of private sector employees. It is not too difficult to envisage that cuts in public services and similar such measures can be interpreted as ‘just’. Admittedly such an interpretation would be dubious, and possibly even wrong. This does not, however, prevent liberals or even conservatives from using it as a political tool.

‘Social justice’ is only an indirect way for social democracy to talk about ‘the real thing’, and that is equality. It is equality that emancipates people from the shackles of poverty and ignorance and offers them the chance to achieve their full potential. It is equality that liberates the body and the mind from the myriad restrictions imposed on it by inherited privilege, mindless superstition and market vulgarity.

‘Social justice’ is good, but may be too benign a concept to mark social democracy as an emancipatory socio-economic and political movement worthy of its past and confident about its future. It is therefore all the more important to extensively debate the  use and applications of equality and how best to achieve it in, admittedly, adverse circumstances.