Political and Economic Institutions of Injustice

Overstory Alliance
Nov 13, 2020 · 10 min read

Written by Alexa Carlson.

This article was originally written as a part of Overstory Alliance’s Library. To see the original version of this article, complete with a full Works Cited, check it out on our website.

In the west, we are often taught history as a battle between democracy and communism, or liberty and authority. The easiest response for humans is to see the world through these oppositional dualities, yet the true story is more complicated — relationships between people are interdependent, rather than oppositional, since they’re based on shared responsibilities and built trust in the current system. The concept of money displays an example of interdependence because even at war, countries will be tied together through currency. Money is built trust in the concept of special paper as a medium of exchange that despite violence and outrageous debt, countries adhere to. Individuals are connected through these deep, interdependent webs of systems that, in sum, create global power dynamics and institutions that have deeply entrenched themselves in society. To change a corrupt system, we cannot just focus on resolving emergent events; we need to take a deeper analysis into the ultimate sources of systemic oppression.

When weeding, the gardener has to dig deep into the earth to remove the plant from the roots so it cannot regrow and continue spreading. Otherwise, the gardener will spend day after day cutting down weeds while the roots spread and block all of the other plants from acquiring adequate nutrients.

Humans are very good at perceiving fairness (as we’ve written about), but it’s harder for us to understand the sources and causes of larger inequalities, especially when we benefit from them. We can start by recognizing oppression on a personal level: gender roles pressure individual humans to embrace characteristics like “appropriate” attire or behavior. At the community scale, hygienization in Rio de Janeiro demolished slums and displaced low-income communities for supposed urban beautification and health standards. Even further, at the regional level, overpumping of aquifers in Tianjin, China for industrial purposes caused widespread water shortages and threatened the region’s food supply. Moving out to the national scale, the Cold War between the US and Russia destroyed the state of Afghanistan, leaving behind a country riddled with violence, corruption, and terror. Finally, as a world, we are oppressed by the actions of generations that came before us that consumed high amounts of fossil energy and polluted the Earth. By viewing oppression from different boundaries of analysis, we can see how each of us is experiencing systemic oppression, whether acute or dull, that impacts our daily lives.

But guess what? We are also oppressors, but it’s harder for us to realize the ways we oppress others. It’s important to recognize that whether or not we are actively part of a system that negatively impacts others, as long as we benefit from that system, we are still acting as oppressors. Let’s apply the same thought experiment as above: on a personal level, we act as oppressors by consuming finite resources (whether flying across the world or buying a new phone). At a community level, wealth concentrated in communities causes educational inequality and often segregation, as the majority of schools in the US are funded through property taxes. Regionally, urban and industrialized areas produce high concentrations of air pollution that disperse into the atmosphere and pollute surrounding areas. As a national level, imperialism in the global south currently carried out through trade and investment practices is consuming finite, resources from marginalized nations to perpetuate global power dynamics. Lastly, as a world, we are perpetuating systems of injustice and oppression that will certainly have negative consequences for future humans and the world.

By recognizing how we are all both oppressed and oppressors, we can see why justice is not a fight between these two groups, but the search for a systematic resolution to liberate us all from this negative relationship.

In understanding the root causes of inequality, historical legacies can shed light on institutions that underpin the difference between the success and failure of states around the world. Countries in the global south “suffer some of the consequences of uneven development that is a structural characteristic of global capitalism — unequal development on a territorial basis, as well as severe social inequalities”. In the race for growth and consumption, countries with the specific legacy of settler colonization have industrialized, similar to their colonizing states. Meanwhile, countries in which the colonizers used the area for extractive purposes, stripping the land of natural and human capital, have a much smaller share of global wealth. Specific histories and forms of colonization create different systems of exploitation that need to be recognized to understand one of the root causes of international inequity.

Countries are directly impacted by the method of colonization that changed power dynamics and gave rise to incredible inequality. Civilizations and local systems of governance were already in existence in areas where colonial powers took root. If the local population was large enough to pose a threat to colonial settlements, then the colonizers often used people within the community to gain control over the region (called indirect rule). In some cases, local chiefs were paid by the colonizer and “given executive, legislative, and judicial powers to regulate social relations in their chiefdom”. “Indirect” colonization instilled a deep hierarchy in which chiefs benefited strongly from the colonizer, and divided regions into decentralized kingdoms as opposed to a strong state. Even after independence, states that experienced indirect rule suffer to this day from the hierarchies born out of colonization, as corruption reigns and government institutions remain weak. Once systems of power are introduced, they create a positive feedback loop that is difficult to reverse without deep, structural interventions. “Indirect” colonization turned strong civilizations into resource engines powered by local rulers inhibiting the development of their own social and political institutions.

When westerners discuss gender inequality, the image of Middle Eastern women forced by their religion and culture into wearing conservative burqas and hijabs is often seen as the epitome of gendered oppression. If culture is the cause of female oppression, then is the answer to fixing gender inequality introducing western values and villainizing Islam? Not quite, gender inequality in the Middle East is a system of oppression heavily tied to economic growth and western consumption. Culture and religion may impact women’s rights to some degree, but the root cause of oppression is more nuanced. Many Muslim women around the world choose to wear conservative garments as an expression of their values. Nevertheless, gender inequality is clearly present in the Middle East: women participate at lower rates in politics, have higher fertility rates, and have less education. In order to create a more just and equitable society, the liberation of women will depend on understanding the system behind oppression.

The status of women in many Middle Eastern countries is closely related to the countries’ economic dependence on oil and natural resources that hindered the development of female-driven industries. Traditionally, the Middle East is an agrarian region where men and women both participate in the labor force, but female participation declined with industrialization in tandem with western economic growth and development. The industrialization of oil-wealthy countries is centered around male dominated industries while agricultural jobs decline as the economy shifts, leaving many women without jobs and income. Economic growth driven by the extraction of natural resources concentrates wealth under men, in turn, making women more dependent on male relatives and husbands for subsistence. Women will have more children as their form of family contribution, producing sons which can work to raise the family’s status. In contrast, Middle Eastern countries without oil wealth, like Tunisia, have higher rates of female political representation because the country developed strong export manufacturing industries (such as textile production). The difference in the status of women across the Middle East is further evidence that culture and religion is not the only nor the strongest cause of inequality. Economic growth is strengthening social hierarchies that are oppressive to women and exploiting fossilized energy for the benefit of the privileged.

In the pursuit of economic growth, the world and humans are being exploited as a means to fulfill the perceived advancement of human society. Many western countries measure progress by increasing their gross domestic product (GDP). However, GDP excludes domestic labor and community practices that do not produce monetary gain, but still support society. Domestic labor falls on women who are more likely to do household work and care for children; therefore, women are often viewed as less skilled and efficient while still completing more hourly labor than men. Additionally, GDP would say country A is more advanced than country B, because A spends more on health care services due to obesity and cancer, while B reduces illness through community initiatives and education. In contrast, Bhutan uses gross national happiness as a measure of sustainable development that prioritizes psychological wellbeing, health, education, cultural diversity and resilience, ecological diversity and resilience, and other factors to indicate success. In Bhutan, increased life expectancy due to healthcare improvement would be viewed as beneficial even if it resulted in lower health care expenditures. The western model of increasing production and consumption to develop is not the only model, and it should be viewed skeptically given its clearly apparent contradictions.

Despite the fallacies in GDP-driven growth, competition for increased production and consumption is creating a race to the bottom of environmental standards and human rights. According to basic economic theory, trade is beneficial because producers will compete until the one with the lowest cost of production provides the good or service to consumers. The consumers will receive the lowest price possible and the countries will specialize to create the most efficient allocation of resources. Sounds great, right? In practice, the consumers that benefit from low prices are westerners who outsource production to the global south for the cheapest labor and the lowest environmental standards possible. Countries in the global south compete with each other to have the lowest production prices (leading to low wages and slave labor) and cheapest environmental standards. The fact that we import products derived from intense pollution in marginalized countries and exploitative labor practices has been widely accepted since the 1980’s — it’s termed “race to the bottom” and “stuck at the bottom” by scholars. Consumption in wealthy countries and economic growth is possible because the hidden costs of our consumption are located in weaker states that are forced to lower their environmental standards and cheapen their human capital in order to compete.

The problem of unfair competition in the open market is heightened by the development ideology of neoliberalism. In the 1980’s, neoliberalism became a prominent political philosophy in the US (thanks Reagan) and spread abroad in developing countries under its influence as a method to grow the economy by reducing “harmful” regulation and “inhibitory” government interference. Under pressure from the US, Chile took a strong turn towards neoliberalism when the dictator Pinochet deregulated the economy, cut organized labor (labor unions), and increased foreign capital investment. The economy experienced high growth rates while social services like health care, education, and water became privatized. As a result, the country experienced a great economic recession as living conditions, heath, education, and employment all plummeted. Workers were forced to compete for low-paying, dangerous jobs without benefits, overtime, insurance, or social security. For many jobs, they even had to supply their own equipment. The local ecosystem was also degraded since exports like forestry and mining were increased, causing water scarcity and pollution, loss of arable land, and loss of livestock. Due to neoliberal policies, the country experienced a short period of growth, shortly followed by a disastrous economy and substantial drop in living standards for Chileans. The race to the bottom and neoliberalism further economic advantages for the already privileged, but subjugate marginalized peoples and the living world to an abusive system that perpetuates injustice.

Laguna San Rafael National Park, Chile

Returning to where we started, these are systemic injustices ingrained in our current world with roots deep into power structures and our history. Oppression is occurring at every level of analysis, from personal experience to global spheres that will be present for generations. The systems of injustice explored will require root-level analysis and destruction in order to rectify the emergent problems. We cannot bring about gender equality in the Middle East by “empowering” women through the media; instead, action will need to be taken to ensure economic independence and liberation. Similarly, environmental degradation won’t stop because of any singular action, but requires international policy changes to create a baseline of environmental standards and action. Small changes may improve the current condition of the world, but they will do nothing to destroy the system that is responsible for their emergence. Weeds will continue to sprout up if the gardener only trims the leaves instead of uprooting the plant.

This article was originally written as a part of Overstory Alliance’s Library. To see the original version of this article, complete with a full Works Cited, check it out on our website.

The Overstory Alliance Library

Free information for a deeply just future.

The Overstory Alliance Library

The Library is a collection of free educational articles written by Overstory Alliance to help inform and empower action for a deeply just future; explaining how we got to today, what we face in the present, and how we can steer the future.

Overstory Alliance

Written by

We are a community that empowers people to reconnect with the living world and defend the future of life. Check out our work: http://overstoryalliance.org

The Overstory Alliance Library

The Library is a collection of free educational articles written by Overstory Alliance to help inform and empower action for a deeply just future; explaining how we got to today, what we face in the present, and how we can steer the future.

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