Imagining an alternative world: Stories for justice*

May 14, 2021

In the 2019 Australian Federal election, Labor leader Bill Shorten offered diverse policies but never a narrative which could be remembered and shared. To speak about justice, a story could have been more effective than a recitation of policies.

With evidence from numerous countries, the book Cruelty or Humanity tells stories of cruelties at the hub of domestic and foreign policies. The stories depict the plight of powerless castes, of Indigenous peoples, refugees, unmarried mothers, apostates, prisoners, people experiencing poverty, homelessness, or unemployment.

To imagine an alternative world, stories can also be expressed in a language for humanity, starting with references to non-violence.

Non-Violence and life-enhancing use of power

The story of the Covid pandemic is matched by the scourge of domestic violence and in the US by slaughter with guns. In Israel, settlers with fascist attitudes drive Palestinians from their homes. In Myanmar, a vicious military kill their own people.

Violence towards planet earth includes emission of greenhouse gases, felling of forests, pollution of seas and extinction of species. Yet Mahatma Gandhi taught that non-violence was not only a way of living but a law for life.

Non-violence expresses ideals of a common humanity which could be inspiring, as when experiences of music, art, dance, sport and poetry convey what it is to be human. Choice of fashion, decoration of homes, the preparation of food plus hospitality to family, friends and strangers are non-violent expressions which enhance life and harm no one.

Non-violence questions how power is exercised. In families, in workplaces, in corporations, in the promotion of religions and in the conduct of national and international politics, power is too often exercised in a top-down, one-dimensional manner. Inquiries into abuse of children, into the treatment of people living with a disability, or concerning care of the elderly, have documented abusive power.

Such abuse is evident in talk of war as though violence is an obvious policy option, and lessons from centuries of carnage will never be learned. Australia’s refusal to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons displays addiction to the time-worn assumption that aggressive power provides security even if it threatens to destroy life.

In and out of uniform, men have liked to swagger, boast of greatness, and ensure their attitudes can be translated into policy tastes for militarization and force of arms. Blind to the principles of universal human rights, liberties can be cast aside, and the leaders of democracies imitate the authoritarian dictators they say they abhor.

The pacifist American poet William Stafford rejected this authoritarian way of thinking, whether in homes, in management practices, in religious edicts, by government secrecy, by politicians arguing with their elbows or in police violence. In Poetry, Stafford explained, “Sometimes commanders take us over and they try to impose their whole universe, how to succeed by daily calculation. I can’t eat that bread.”

The German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht spoke about a bread which would be nutritious and should be available to all the world’s peoples. In Bread of the People, he explained, “Justice is the bread of the people … Just as daily bread is necessary, so is daily justice, It is even necessary several times a day.” (He instructed),

Throw away the bad justice

Baked without love, kneaded without knowledge,

Justice without flavour, with a grey crust

The stale justice which comes too late.

In common with expressions of non-violence, a multi-dimensional expression of power derives from courage to break boundaries and to craft hopeful futures. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony imagines the possibility of peace. In The Second Coming, W B Yeats made timeless predictions, as apposite now as in the aftermath of the First World War.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Ending capitalism, reviving democracy 

In a story about the future, it will be difficult to imagine a society different from the one characterized by inequalities and injustices, those fruits of a capitalist system that have brought riches to powerful minorities and misery to millions.

In Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, Mr Creosote ate too much and eventually exploded. Capitalist commitment to perpetual economic growth has required consumption of the earth’s resources until key resources are exhausted.

It is urgent to conceive societies not preoccupied with autocratic governance and financial gain, hence a story which imagines transition from capitalism to an economy based on responsible stewardship of the environment and of democracy.

A revitalized democracy presupposes living in harmony with planet earth, replacing perpetual growth with an international sharing of resources, rejecting the selfishness of privatization and re-investing massively in public institutions.

Replacement of jobs by Artificial Intelligence will require changes in thinking about work and income. If large numbers of employees are saying, ‘I can’t wait to retire to do something useful with my life’, the question arises, how to obtain income which would also enable people to be community useful and individually fulfilled. Humanity does not require a large percentage of citizens doing work which is poorly paid, insecure, and experienced as of little value.

Governments’ financial support for people during the Covid crises showed how income support replaced queueing to demonstrate moral worthiness necessary to justify welfare. A guaranteed national income prompted by a dangerous virus should become a permanent feature of an economy of fellowship through socialist ideals for a common good, could address poverty at a stroke and re-craft the balance between work, volunteerism, and leisure.

The story of non-violence, of non-destructive exercise of power and of ways to end subservience to capitalism, needs to include a commitment to internationalism. Covid and climate change underline the interdependence of peoples and have demonstrated the dangerous isolationism in Trump’s Make America Great Again, in Johnson’s racist based Brexit or in countries which hoard vaccines when poorer nations have at best only a short supply.

Commitments as an international citizen can sit comfortably with efforts to foster national interests. A reassuring spurt of international generosity by sending oxygen and crucial medical equipment to India underlines the value of global interdependence and the wisdom in the poet John Donne’s prediction,

No man is an island entire of itself; every man Is a piece if the continent, a part of the main;

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in Mankinde;

And therefore never send to know for whom

The bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Societies characterized by violence, by abuses of human rights and by economic systems which commodify everyone and everything, show the need for non-violence, for non-destructive use of power, for a commitment to internationalism and an end to capitalism.

Those goals are expressed in a language for humanity, thereby telling a story of justice for today, for tomorrow and as a legacy for future generations. #postCovidjustice

*Issues to be discussed by Craig Foster & Stuart Rees, interviewed by Liz Deep-Jones, starting 6 pm on Thursday May 27 in a face-to-face event, Sydney University Eastern Ave. Lecture Theatre. Q&A follows, admission free, registration required.      

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