The ‘new’ (Anti) Social Justice?


Yesterday, I gave a talk at Newcastle Law School as part of a really interesting seminar series they are holding on ‘What is social justice?’

I effectively dodged the question and instead focused primarily on what is not social justice, using the governmental version of ‘social justice’ to argue that the concept has effectively been misappropriated by Iain Duncan Smith and his ‘doxosopher’ friends at the Centre for Social Justice. Bourdieu argued that people working for ‘think-tanks’, or, more accurately, lobbying groups, like the Centre for Social Justice were ‘would-be scholars of the obvious’ and Gramsci called them ‘experts in legitimacy’ and ‘organic intellectuals’. Hayek suggested that they were unable to have original thoughts of their own and suggested they were ‘dealers in second-hand ideas’.

I try and argue that there are at least five key elements of this new version of social justice which differentiate it from more widely held and understood concepts of social justice. These elements are:

  • de-historicization – stripped of, ignorant of and in denial about its historical context and meaning
  • mis-recognition – both research evidence and the lives of disadvantaged individuals have been willfully mis-recognised and mis-represented
  • operationalization – what was often a claim made on government by campaigning groups is now a fully fledged ‘official’ political programme with departmental responsiblity, a government strategy, an annual report, an outcomes framework and annual conferences and awards.
  • individualization – along with familialization, what has generally been a theory relating primarily to the ‘basic structure of society’  is now a concept firmly located in ‘transforming lives’, aided by 33 individual social justice ‘case studies’ on the DWP Social Justice website.
  • commodification – I blogged about the commodification of multiple disadvantage here and social justice now represents an investment opportunity for private sector firms and individuals.

I suggest that, as this ‘new’ version of social justice is entirely keeping with Thatcher’s view that ‘there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women, and families’ then the ‘Easterhouse epiphany’ that Iain Duncan Smith underwent must never have happened (HUGE credit here to Kaliya Franklin and her ‘Benefit Scrounging Scum’ blog for highlighting this). Instead, drawing on Hayek, I argue that we have been treated to a ‘mirage’ of social justice and the current governmental use of the term is, as he proposed

intellectually disreputable, the mark of a demagogy or cheap journalism which responsible thinkers ought to be ashamed to use because, once its vacuity is recognized, its use is dishonest

I came across a book called ‘Anti-social policy’ by Peter Squires recently which has helped some of my thinking on this. A couple of quotes, which I use in the presentation, stand out. The first talks of how the New Right governments of the 1980s achieved a ‘dislocation of the social’, and that their

constructed discourses of ‘the social’ wielded by the states ‘social’ institutions and the ‘social’ professions bear precious little relation to the aspirations of civil society that the progressive and democratic socialist tradition has long embraced

Squires goes on to argue that

How might we describe, other than by the designation ‘anti-social policy’, proposals which increase the distance between rich and poor in terms of health, housing and education; proposals which increase dependency upon inadequate means tested benefits and increase the numbers of homeless … or legislation which centralises political power and undermines civil liberties?

The slides from the presentation are below. If anyone has any thoughts or questions about them, please do get in contact, either via the comment box or via e-mail at . I’d be very interested to hear people’s thoughts.

If anyone is interested in having me come and talk/present/spout off about this to them, again, please let me know.

Thanks again to Newcastle Law School – and Kathryn Hollingsworth and Kevin Brown in particular – for the invitation to speak.

Best wishes,





2 thoughts on “The ‘new’ (Anti) Social Justice?

  1. I enjoyed your presentation Stephen and found much of the thinking transferable to my own research area:
    The positive tributes that asylum seeker children can bring to the notion of Community Cohesion.

    For example, government and media rethoric suggesting asylum seekers bring individualistic problems that the state has limited, if any, morale responsibility to address. This includes the wider picture of why asylum seekers exist, or the need for humane (civilised) intervention as they present themselves to the Border Agency. Much evidence suggests the Government and regime of the Border Agency that asylum seekers are immediately suspected as benefit or health tourists.

    I will also begin to read the works of Bourdieu, and the notion of Doxa. I be been putting this of for a while, but guess I need to do this.

    I also thought you dealt with some of the more challenging questions very well.

    Keep going

    George Stobbart

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