Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account

A proselytising book assumes much about world poverty but answers little, writes Radha D'Souza

May 7, 2009

If wishes were horses, and if the suppositions upon which Gillian Brock bases her arguments for global justice are correct, then the countless faceless beggars of this world would ride joyously. For Brock, the poor are objects of contemplation and she invites us to shut ourselves in a closed room and deliberate dispassionately about what we can do about their condition.

Global justice for her is something "we" do for "them" -there is no ambiguity about it - and this "we" and "them" is sustained throughout the book. I imagine it is a windowless room that we are invited to deliberate in, because the book gets too stuffy too soon: the proselytising tone, endless sermons on being Good Samaritans, the virtues of generosity and compassion. Give me Sunday service any day - at least churches are aesthetically pleasing.

Brock is ambitious. She claims to have developed a model for implementation that shows "how we can move from theory to feasible public policies that make progress toward global justice". Policies for global taxation, basic liberties, humanitarian intervention, immigration and global economic order will fix the world's problems within the United Nations framework, without upsetting too many of "our" institutional apple carts.

She provides three causes of poverty: geographical factors that make some countries poor; lack of integration into world markets; and the quality of institutions and absence of the rule of law. Does this sound familiar? Malthusian nature? The World Trade Organization's market access? The World Bank's good governance? How the poor are poor because they are stupid or unlucky? "We cannot anyhow entirely eliminate the impact of brute luck from human affairs," writes Brock. At least Sunday service will not translate into public policy.

Brock claims to address two types of sceptic: the feasibility sceptic, who argues that global justice is not possible to actualise; and the nationalist sceptic, who argues that we can only be just to our compatriots. With the argument set up in this way, there is no need to ask questions about the causes of global injustice, why they recur and how.

Global justice as a discourse grew as the manifest injustices of globalisation became apparent. If Brock's purpose is to put a human face on globalisation, others have done a far better job: Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, the International Labour Organization's World Commission on Social Dimensions of Globalisation, to name but a few.

Brock's assumptions are never unpacked. We are told, for example, that there must be a system of global taxation - without any arguments to bridge the gap between problems of poverty (demonstrated by statistics) and the need for taxation (a conceptual proposition).

Even the cosmopolitanism that is so central to the book is not reflected upon. For Brock, Marxist ideas of class solidarity are only a species of liberal individualist cosmopolitanism based on notions of the moral worth of every human being.

Her selection of literature is intriguing. She picks her sources without explaining why she prefers them over others. There is so much contradictory material, factual and theoretical, on global injustice that without some justification the book is methodologically wobbly.

If I had an electronic version of Global Justice, I would have counted the number of times Brock uses the word "recall". Frequent exhortation to recall things from earlier pages and chapters makes this work verbose and repetitive.

Every book is written for an imagined reader. This one is written for the philosophical liberal who simply knows that liberalism needs no further defence because it is an axiomatic truth. If you are not a believer, don't bother with the book.

Global Justice: A Cosmopolitan Account

By Gillian Brock

Oxford University Press 288pp, £55.00 and £22.50

ISBN 9780199230938 and 9230945

Published 8 January 2009

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