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Exacerbation Effect of Anti-Oppressive Movements and the Swarthmore Living Wage Democracy Campaign

Alexander M. Ginsberg '08

There is perhaps no problem to philosophy and society as important as justice, and yet never throughout history has a single model proven absolute.  Great minds such as Plato, Hobbes, Locke, Rawls, and many others have given us compelling arguments in favor of their own perceptions of justice; and though these theories try their hardest to capture the essence of justice, they have done nothing but contribute—which is not to say, a trivial accomplishment—to the patchwork notion that some subscribe to now.  But why is justice such a difficult question?  What makes defining justice such an intricate task?  Iris Marion Young addresses these questions, suggesting that attempts to create a maxim of justice fail by "presupposing no particular social situations, institutions, or practices," which results in the theory of becoming, "simply too abstract to be useful in evaluating actual institutions and practices." (Young 4)  Despite the difficulties in the quest to find an all encompassing definition of justice, I believe it is imperative that theorists continue to think about this issue.  As justice evolves, injustice wanes; and the elimination of injustice is the obligation of society.  Therefore, it seems that the best way to produce a working theory of justice is to have one which is grounded enough so that it can be tested empirically, yet abstract enough that it is adaptive.  Until some revelation or genius delineates the measures of this most elusive idea, society must accept—while eternally seeking to perfect—a justice which is good enough for now.

For the sake of this essay, Iris Marion Young's theory  of justice is good enough for now.   In her book, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Young argues against what she calls the distributive paradigm.  The distributive paradigm is a manner of thinking about social justice in terms of the "distribution of social benefits and burdens among society's members." It seeks to objectify not only wealth and income, but "metaphorically" reifies "nonmaterial social goods," such as power and rights, and represents them as "static things, instead of a function of social relations and processes."   (Young 16)  The paradigm ignores important "social structures and institutional contexts," such as culture and decision making processes, which need to be examined to understand the patterns on which the paradigm focuses.  Examining justice from the distributive paradigm results in a view that entirely can not explain certain elements of society, and obscures many other aspects.  She suggests that instead of looking at social justice in terms of distribution, it should be seen as the means of ending "institutionalized domination and oppression." (Young 15)

I accept Young's argument that a view of justice should begin with a focus on domination and oppression.  For my ends however, a succinct definition of domination will suffice; oppression is my focus and needs more elaboration.  Thus, Young's definition of domination is an institutionalized prevention of a group of people from taking part in the selection of their pursuits.

In its most general sense, oppression causes "people to suffer some inhibition of their ability to develop and exercise their capacities and express their needs, thoughts, and feelings." (Young 38)  It is that which prevents the oppressed people from participating in many important social institutions, such as education and politics, and is the cause of negative class related interactions within society. Furthermore, oppression is no longer necessarily the result of a tyrant directly interfering with a group's lives.  Oppression is more often the disadvantage which a group suffers caused by the "everyday practices of a well-intentioned liberal society."  Thus, well-meaning people often contribute to the structural reproduction of oppression simply because of their "often unconscious assumptions and reactions." (Young 41)  These individual biases result in what may seem insignificant amounts of racism, classism, sexism, and etc; on the aggregate level, however, the hidden prejudices of a society can dangerously inhibit the lives of an oppressed group.   From this, it is clear that there is not necessarily an oppressing group for each oppressed group; instead, the actions of many individuals contribute to oppression.  These people, however, "do not understand themselves as agents of oppression." Of further importance in understanding how deep this type of injustice can run is realizing the relationships which oppression itself causes.  Young states that "for every oppressed group there is a group that is privileged in relation to that group." (Young 42)  Similar to the unintentional agents of oppression, those who benefit from it may be altogether unaware.  Resulting from this societal form of unconscious oppression is the difficulty in the process of mending the wounds caused by this injustice.  Taking Young's arguments into consideration, it clearly follows that attempts to liberate an oppressed group often lead to further oppression.  This exacerbation effect can take aim at the originally oppressed group, another oppressed group, or a new, previously un-oppressed subject.  The struggle between benevolent intentions and destructive result is a frequent battle and is alive at Swarthmore in the form of the Living Wage Democracy Campaign.

Staff workers at the college are part of the working class, a group which is oppressed on widespread levels.  Because most people look at justice from the distributive paradigm, they see working class oppression mostly in terms of economic remuneration.  This is what is commonly referred to as 'exploitation,' but in Young's theory, exploitation extends further than merely the inequality in product value versus wage reimbursement.  Exploitation not only creates economic inequality but "enacts a structural relation between social groups," which fosters suppositions about "what work is, who does what for whom, [and] how work is compensated." (Young 49)  The Living Wage Democracy Campaign (LWDC), by interpreting the exploitation of Swarthmore's staff as merely an economic issue, bases its mission on assumptions which are themselves part of the structure of systematic oppression.  Just as a building placed on poor foundation is likely to be unstable, so a well-intentioned mission based on misguided assumptions is bound to do harm.

Before I move along to further criticize of the LWDC it is important that I give credit where credit is due.  The Living Wage Democracy Campaign is a student-run movement which has—with faculty aide—pushed an important issue to campus attention.   It seeks to have the school implement a living wage for the staff workers.  Despite my misgivings on the adverse effects of the Campaign, I can say that I am morally in favor of their cause.  Whether or not the living wage they propose is plausible and whether its full implementation could hurt the college's main purpose, education, are other matters entirely; in essence, I believe that a living wage is a good idea and is ethically right, and I support it in theory.  However, I do not support oppression.  And, since I believe that the LWDC is going about achieving their goals in the wrong way, contributing to the cycle of oppression, I am critical of their method.

The LWDC's mistake begins with the shortsightedness of their goal.  As I understand it, the primary focus of LWDC is to mollify an unfair economic situation.  Workers at Swarthmore College do not earn enough in wages to support themselves, and the LWDC proposes a Living Wage to make that self-support possible.  The movement pushed for a committee to research a proper Living Wage, and has pushed for the suggested proposal from the committee.  However, it seems that this project is mostly lead by students and faculty.  One leader of the LWDC said, "We've been trying to be good listeners. We want to use our privilege as students to advance the concerns that they brought to us." (The Phoenix, Booth, 2001-02-15)  This statement gives a sense of respect and concern for the staff—which I would argue is sincerely felt—is full of oppressive presumption.  The LWDC, by taking leadership in this project, assumes that they are more fit than the staff for this battle.  This is the result, and thus a reproduction of a form of oppression called Powerlessness.

It is obvious that, "most workplaces are not organized democratically," and so the staff workers at Swarthmore have little to no autonomy in the workplace.  This is powerlessness in the sense of their occupation; but, even in the Living Wage Democracy Campaign, staff workers do not take a leading part in "making decisions that affect the conditions of their lives and actions."  Thus, when students and faculty take the lead, the result is that the staff "lack [any] significant power," (Young 56) in the plight for a change which will affect them more than any other group.  Where is the democracy here?  According to reporters from the school's newspaper, "some staff have accused the student campaign of taking over an issue they do not fully understand."  (The Phoenix, Booth, 2001-02-15) The key here in terms of powerlessness (there is another important issue I will address later) is the fact that the campaign is "taking over."   When confronted about lack of staff participation in their effort, the LWDC claims that the staff is either unable to become involved because of time constraints, (i.e. holding more than one job) or because they are afraid they will lose their job if they voice their opinion.  This is all part of the spectrum of powerlessness. The powerless "express themselves awkwardly, especially in public or bureaucratic settings," and this awkwardness is a direct result of intimidation.  LWDC contributes to this intimidation by heralding—almost exploiting—the staff workers who do express themselves on their side.  

Furthermore, despite the sentiments of the LWDC, the staff is being deprived of a necessary level of respect which would encourage them to act on their own.  "Respectability" is an issue which is linked to power.  Leaders have power, and thus they command respect, the powerless "do not command respect."  (Young 56)  Therefore, verbally active staff members, utilized as LWDC gimmicks, but lacking real power, do not command respect.  The lack of staff-commanded-respect results in a lack of staff-self-respect, and staff interest in the movement.  In the market world, the powerless (i.e. the working class) almost always "stand under the authority of professionals." (Young 57)  In the LWDC, the powerless stand under the authority of students.  I am inclined to believe that this unconscious condescension  by the students harms worker self-respect more than unconscious condescension by adult professionals.  The level of respect given to students and faculty are higher than that given to the staff because, as Young puts it, "the norms of respectability in our society are associated specifically with professional culture." (Young 58)  If the LWDC were fighting the true exploitation of the staff workers, the issue of respectability would be at the forefront of the battle.  Instead, the Living Wage Democracy Campaign reproduces oppression in the form of powerlessness.  No group can be liberated from oppression while they are held in a state of powerlessness. 

Powerlessness itself can contribute to the proliferation of cultural imperialism, another form of oppression.  Cultural imperialism occurs when "dominant groups project their own experience as representative of humanity as such." (Young 59)  Dominant groups take their own views as the views of other groups.  These views can include broad and vague subjects such as justice (perhaps the reason justice is so hard to define), or can encompass relatively simple issues of hygiene, such as the American tradition of women shaving their armpits.  Powerlessness plays into cultural imperialism because it is one of its causes.  When a minority group lacks power, and consequently respect, a dominant group is not likely to value the cultural perceptions of the minority group. The other cause of cultural imperialism is simply culture-centric naiveté.  In the case of the LWDC and the staff workers, a form of class-related cultural imperialism is at work.  Perhaps the best term is social imperialism.  My argument for this comes from the way the LWDC has persisted in certain efforts and opinions despite ambivalence in the staff.  Of 3000 questionnaires distributed to the Swarthmore community to gauge the desire for further talks about the Living wage, only 53 were returned, and of that, just 5 staff workers (the only staff to reply), indicated their interest.
Only 40 members of a 600 person workforce signed the campaign's petition.  Furthermore, staff opinions on the campaign itself differ.  Some staff members believe the group has approached the issue without "honesty" and that supervisors should have been included.  Others felt that they did not even have enough information about the living wage proposals of the LWDC.  Many "have accused the student campaign of taking over an issue they do not fully understand."  (The Phoenix, Booth, 2001-02-15)  These instances are obviously not remote, yet the LWDC continues to believe itself in the right, drawing and adhering to the divisive conclusion that these staff members are just odd individuals in a staff which they believe wholly supports their cause.  This is social imperialism in its essence.

It is a wonderful thing that students at Swarthmore are thinking about issues of social justice.  As I said before, society needs people to push the question of justice.  Stagnate justice, the status quo, is oppression's medium.  On the other hand, the Living Wage Democracy Campaign has involved itself in the wrong way.  In not realizing, or perhaps ignoring the non-distributive issues of oppression, the LWDC based their mission on a flawed judgment of the exploitation of the staff members, and began to fight only one element.  The result is what I call the exacerbation effect of the anti-oppression movement.   The LWDC has contributed to powerlessness by leaving staff out of the decision making processes of the campaign, and has become socially imperialistic by ignoring the staff voices which would be adverse to their goals.  Professor Kenneth Sharpe said that students of the campaign "learn not to take staff people for granted," (The Phoenix, Booth, 2001-02-15) but the truth is that they are taking the staff for granted, and the result is oppression.

In general, when a group tries to end the oppression of another, we say it is justice, it is a good thing.  However, by going about it in the wrong way, it creates injustice.  Each situation is intrinsically different from others, but some patterns exist.  One important element to consider is that when a "rescuing" group leaves the oppressed group out, the result is further oppression, which often causes even a successful "rescue" to end in problems; take the current situation in Iraq for example.  On the other hand, when the oppressed group is part of the action, the result is much better; an example of this is the success of the Serbian led non-violent revolution which accomplished the goal of ousting Slobodan Milosovich and used only miniscule American financial support; American bombs could not do this.

The Living Wage Democracy Campaign has taken a necessary step in ending a form of oppression.  They have acknowledged it and brought to public attention.  But, to prevent themselves from causing more oppression, they must realize their own mistakes and step back.  The LWDC must realize that in this situation, they are the privileged group.  They, as students, benefit from staff oppression, and to fight this oppression they must actively seek to stop benefiting from it.  The only way to do this is to let go of the idea that they must have the power in this battle.  My belief is that the LWDC should encourage the staff to unionize, and then act only in accordance with the goals and actions of the staff union.  The living wage situation is far along enough so that the school's administration must do something.  It is the staff, not the students, who should be given the power and respect to help make that decision. 

November 28th, 2004 marked, according to an involved student, "an unbelievable victory for the college and a victory for the living wage movement." (The Phoenix, Bradlow, 2004-12-02)   On that day, the Board of Managers voted on and passed the proposal of an increase to the minimum wage, as well as increased benefits for staff workers at Swarthmore College.  Certainly this achievement is admirable, but is it a legitimate victory?  Can a true victory be born from procedural injustice?  At nearly the instant of the "success," there were already signs of irresolvable issues.  From the LWDC side, claims that "this is our first victory [of many],"  were met with administrative statements that not only is there "no chance" for further additions to the living wage, but that "it would be damaging to" fight for more. (The Phoenix, Bradlow, 2004-12-02)  What, I am curious, does the staff have to say about this issue?  

Asking whether the economic gains made for the staff are sufficient is an empty question.  The real problem is whether the oppression of the staff been alleviated.  No, it has not.  It is clear first and foremost from the idea that there has been no questioning of the fact that "the current compensation package will be re-evaluated in three years, as stipulated in the text of the proposal." (The Phoenix, Bradlow, 2004-12-02)    Evaluation implies a lack of staff involvement; powerlessness and social imperialism have not been averted in the new "living wage" if the staff is not part of negotiations rather than evaluations.   Moreover, how has the wage increase affected the opinion that students have of staff workers?   Because the LWDC was student led, it is very easy for students to feel that the workers are more obliged to help them.  The relationship of staff to student has not been equalized because of the new wage distribution system.  I would argue that students have more power because of it.  As the students feel that the staff "owes them," respectability is denigrated further, condescension becomes conscious.  And, even if no students feel this way, it is likely that staff members are more vulnerable to the opposite end of the sentiment. 

Besides these issues, there are concerns of qualification creep, compression, turnover, self-respect and etc.  The procedural injustice of the LWDC's campaign leaves cracks in the stone wall of a "living wage victory."   With these issues in mind—leaving open room for those that can not be yet foreseen—I am hesitant to call the LWDC's achievements a "victory."  Essentially, the flaw of the distributive paradigm, and the LWDC, is that it does not realize that anything less than a complete paradigm shift is not
a true success. 

Works Cited
Booth, Ivan, and Gabe Hetland. "Living wage democracy campaign." The Phoenix 15 Feb. 2001 <>

Bradlow, Benjamin. "Living wage democracy campaign." The Phoenix 2 Dec. <>

Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.


About writing, Alexander says:  "When I begin to write a paper, I really only have one goal in mind; to write something interesting.  Of course, what is interesting is subjective, but a fascinating essay has several common traits, and I try to focus on these essential characteristics.  First of all, it must be easy to read, and so I attempt to write in a reader-friendly voice.  Furthermore, the argument must be flushed out well and logically traceable.  Most importantly, I strive to make my paper rewarding to readers by presenting novel ideas.  In the end, if I don't find my own paper intriguing, I know no one else will."