Justice and the Separation of the 'Economic' and 'Political'

Matt Bolton


The demand for ‘justice’ in the face of state violence has been a central feature of numerous recent social movements, from the Hillsborough Justice Campaign to Black Lives Matter. This paper poses the question of the relation of such demands to both conceptions of class struggle and ‘identity politics’.

The concept of justice, particularly with regard to law and the state, has long had an uneasy relationship with Marxist theory. Marx was often dismissive towards issues of formal legal equality, while commodity form theorists working in the wake of Pashukanis tend to view it as a derivation of the exchange relation. Analytical Marxism took up the question of justice as a central concern, but invariably ended up slipping back into liberal political philosophy. And while Political Marxists rightly focus on legally-mediated struggle during the transition to capitalism, once ‘extra-economic coercion’ has been separated from the ‘economic’, and the state differentiated from the market, questions of justice and equality (including ‘extra-economic’ distinctions of gender and ‘race’) are regarded as hangovers from previous forms of social-property relations, with little relevance to capitalist class relations.

This paper will use the work of Heide Gerstenberger to contest the notion that capitalism is defined by non-violent ‘economic coercion’ alone. It will suggest that the distinction between the ‘political’ and ‘economic’ is not fixed but constantly remade by the state. The appearance of a ‘class relation’, understood as a legally free ‘exchange of equivalents’, is not an universal accompaniment to capitalism but a product of historically specific political struggles to push back the frontline of ‘extra-economic’ coercion. Such struggle were often motivated by demands for individual or collective dignity rather than economic gain.

The demand for justice today thereby emerges from the contested process(es) through which the ‘economic’ is (or is not) separated from the ‘political’. This analysis attempts to problematise the distinction between ‘class’ and ‘identity’ by suggesting that the very definition of class as an ‘economic’ relation is itself a historically specific product of ongoing ‘extra-economic’ struggles, which cannot be relegated to ‘pre-capitalist’ or epiphenomenal status.

Justice - class - identity politics - law - state