Political Responsibility after Conflict

The following are some extracts illustrating some concepts that I base my own framework for this discussion upon (with some reformatting – bullet points and italic emphasis are mine) from:

Young, I.M. (2003) ‘From guilt to solidarity’, Dissent, Spring, pp.39-44, http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=504 (accessed 24 April, 2012)

See also:

Liability [blame model of responsibility] vs. Political Responsibility

[…] The most common model of assigning responsibility derives from legal reasoning about guilt or fault for a harm inflicted.

  • The fault or liability model is primarily backward looking; it reviews the history of events in order to assign responsibility, usually for the sake of exacting punishment or compensation.
  • Assigning responsibility to some agents, on this model, also has the function of absolving other agents. To find this person or group guilty of a crime usually implies that others accused of the same crime are not guilty.

[…] There are four features of the idea of political responsibility that distinguish it from blame or liability.

  1. Political responsibility does not mark out and isolate those who are considered to be responsible.A blame model of responsibility distinguishes those who are responsible from others who, by implication, are not responsible. Such isolation of the one liable or blameworthy person from all the others is an important aspect of legal responsibility, both in criminal and tort law. […]
    • But many harms, wrongs, and injustices have no isolatable perpetrator; they result from the participation of millions of people and institutions. […] Some people and institutions perform specific actions or enforce policies that can be shown as contributing […] but they do not intend to do that, and what they do only has this effect insofar as it is supplemented and mediated by other actions even further removed from that outcome.
    • For other cases of injustice some specific perpetrators can be identified and blamed as immediate causes, but these too are enabled and supported by wider social structures in which millions of people participate. […]
    • In the conception of political responsibility, then, finding that some people bear responsibility for injustice does not necessarily absolve others.
  2. Political responsibility questions “normal” conditions.
    • In a blame or liability conception of responsibility, what counts as a wrong is generally conceived as a deviation from a baseline. Implicitly, we assume a normal background situation that is morally acceptable, if not ideal.
    • A crime or an actionable harm consists in a morally and legally unacceptable deviation from this background structure.
    • The process that brought about the harm is conceived as a discrete, bounded event that breaks away from the normal flow of events.
    • Punishment, redress, or compensation aims to restore normality or to “make whole” in relation to the baseline condition.

    A concept of political responsibility in relation to structural injustices, on the other hand, doesn’t focus on harms that deviate from the normal and acceptable, but rather brings into question the “normal” background conditions.

    • When we judge that structural injustice exists, we are saying that at least some of the accepted background conditions of action are morally unacceptable.
    • Most of us contribute to a greater or lesser degree to the production and reproduction of structural injustice precisely because we follow the accepted and expected rules and conventions of the communities in which we live. Usually we enact standard practices in a habitual way, without explicit reflection on what we are doing, having in the foreground of our consciousness and intention our immediate goals and the particular people we need to interact with to achieve them.

    The antisweatshop movement well illustrates this challenge to normal structural background conditions. It asks consumers, universities, and other institutions that contract with retailers, brand-name clothing companies, and many other agents, to reflect on the hitherto acceptable market relationships in which they act. It challenges all the agents that are part of the economic chain between the workers who make garments and the people who buy and wear them to ask whether “business as usual” is morally acceptable.

  3. Political responsibility looks forward rather than backward.
    • Blame and praise are primarily backward looking judgments. They refer to an action or event assumed to have reached its end.
    • The purpose of assigning responsibility as fault or liability is usually to sanction, punish, or exact compensation.
    • Such backward looking condemnation may partly have a forward looking purpose; we may wish to deter others from similar action in the future or to identify weak points in an institutional system that allows such blameworthy actions, in order to reform the institutions. Once we take this step, however, we may begin to move toward a conception of political responsibility. For many people may be bound to undertake those reforms, even though they are not to blame for past problems.
    • Political responsibility doesn’t reckon debts, but aims at results, and thus depends on the actions of everyone who is in a position to contribute to those results.
    • Taking political responsibility in respect to social structures emphasizes the future more than the past. Because the causal connection of particular individuals or even organizations to the harmful structural outcomes is often impossible to trace, there is no point in seeking to exact compensation or redress from some isolatable perpetrators.
    • If we understand that structural processes cause (some) injustices, then those of us who participate in the production and reproduction of the structures should recognize that our actions contribute to the injustice. And then we should take responsibility for changing the processes.
    • To return to the sweatshop case, the main objective of this movement is not to compensate workers for past wrongs but to make social changes that will eliminate future harm.
    • (Such a project cannot be undertaken, of course, without reflection on the past: we need to understand the history of processes that produce specific outcomes, and in this sense must be backward looking.)
  4. Political responsibility is shared responsibility. If the injustice is a result of structural processes involving many individuals and institutions engaging in normal and accepted activities, the necessary change requires the cooperationof many of those individuals and institutions.
    • Discharging my responsibility in this situation means joining in collective actions with others. We share responsibility for organizing changes in how the processes work.
    • Working through state institutions is often an effective means to change structural processes, but states are not the only tools of effective action. […]
    • Our responsibility is political in the sense that acting on it involves joining in a public discourse where we try to persuade one another about courses of collective action that will contribute to social change.

    An important corollary of this feature of political responsibility is that many of those properly thought to be victims of harm or injustice may nevertheless have political responsibilities in relation to it.

    • In a fault model of responsibility, blaming the victims of injustice serves to absolve others of responsibility for their plight.
    • In a conception of political responsibility, however, those who can properly be called victims of structural injustice often share the responsibility to try to change the structures.
    • In the case of labor exploitation, the workers themselves ought to resist if they can.

    Conceptualizing political responsibility as distinct from blame is important for motivating political action. When people feel that they are being blamed, they tend to react defensively. They look for other agents to blame instead, or they make excuses that mitigate their liability.

    • Such practices of accusation and defense have an important place in morality and law.
    • When the issue is how to mobilize collectives for the sake of social change, however, such rhetorics of blame and finger-pointing lead more to resentment and refusal to take responsibility than to useful action. […]

    Distinguishing political responsibility from blame or liability allows us to urge one another to take responsibility together for the fact that our actions collectively contribute to the complex structural processes that produce the […] conditions we deplore. Most of us have not committed individual wrongs; rather, we participate by our normal and on the face of it innocuous actions in processes that produce wrongs.

Young, I.M. (2003) ‘From guilt to solidarity’, Dissent, Spring, pp.39-44, http://dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=504 (accessed 24 April, 2012)

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