Finding hope for social justice in the origins of human civilization
By Joseph Orosco
There usually comes a point in one of the many classes I teach dealing with social justice issues that students will stop and ask: “How can we have hope that justice will prevail?”
Students often tell me that having hope that justice will win out over all the awful inequities of the world is easier if one has a religious outlook. They point to Martin Luther King’s aphorism about the moral arc of the universe being wide but pointing to justice as an example of this kind of outlook. If you think there is an overarching, guiding power to the cosmos, then the pain and suffering in the world, and the hard work of activist struggle, is more palatable since redemption in the end is likely.
I usually mention Cornel West’s distinction between optimism and hope in these discussions . He says:
“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, “It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.”
West warns against having too much optimism and trying to learn how to cultivate hope. For many, though, this attitude still sounds too much like faith. What kind of visions can keep people going in the social justice struggle “against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever”?
There are many such visions looking forward to a better world. Utopian literature, and speculative fiction in particular (which is part of the inspiration of the Anarres Project) is filled with such possibilities.
But one vision that has been intriguing me lately is not entirely focused on the future, and is not based on some sort of faith in a just world. In fact, it is located in the past; in the earliest history of human civilization. It is part of the story of the origins of social justice as a concept itself.
Some background: I recently started reading Enrique Dussell’s The Ethics of Liberation. In it, Dussell argues that we ought to look for the origins of liberatory thought not in the works of the ancient Greeks or Romans, but in earlier societies that are outside the canon of Western thought. He notes that many of the ethical and political ideas we credit to the Greeks had their origins in Egypt, or in Phoenician and Sumerian civilizations.
So, taking Dussell’s suggestion I found myself reading about Urukagina. He was the monarch of the city-state of Lagash in about 2400 BCE in what is now modern day Iraq.
Urukagina is noteworthy because he promulgated the first written legal code in recorded history, almost 650 years before the code of Hammurabi in 1750 BCE. The code is significant because much of it deals with laying out the basis of social justice.
Urukagina was a reformer and took it upon himself to limit the social power of the rich, and to abolish the corruption of government officials who were known to line their own pockets by taxing the poor, or enslaving them in debtor’s prisons.
A praise poem outlines some of Urukagina’s reforms:
“When a dead man was placed in the tomb, (only) three jars of beer and eighty loaves of bread were delivered in his name. The uh-mush priest received one bed and one turban. The priest’s assistant received one-eighth gur of barley….
The youth was not required to work in the a-zar-la; the workingman was not forced to beg for his bread. The priest no longer invaded the garden of a humble person.
He (also) decreed: If a good ass is born to a client and his overseer says to him, “I will buy if from you,” then if be wishes to sell it he will say, “Pay me what pleases me”; but if he does not wish to sell, the overseer must not force him. If the house of a powerful man is next to the house of a client, and if the powerful man says to him, “I wish to buy it,” then if he wishes to sell he will say, “Pay me in silver as much as suits me,” or “Reimburse me with an equivalent amount of barley”; but if he does not wish to sell, the powerful man must not force him.”
Here you see Urukagina’s work in spelling out in detail what kind of offerings people are obligated to give to priests and officials so that they would not be overtaxed. You see him establishing a kind of limit on the power of the aristocracy such that they could not arbitrarily abuse the farmers and producers, but instead, had to treat them with some respect.
So how does this history offer a hopeful vision about social justice?
I think that there are a couple of lessons here. The first is to recognize that from the very beginning of human recorded history–from the very moment in which we started to gather into urban areas and build the foundation of human civilization–there has been an effort to make sure that our communities are socially just. More than anything, the nature of human civilization has been about the struggles to protect disadvantaged members of society from mistreatment, and to arrange our institutions so that they do not empower classes of people to exploit others and act with impunity. So when we join in social justice activism today, we should know that we are taking part of a long human tradition, indeed, in practices that, in some sense, define us as the kind of beings that we are now—urban dwelling and interdependent humans.
The second lesson is to realize that the social justice struggle does progress over time and it still has ways to go that call for our help. Urukagina’s fight against the oligarchs and the corrupt bureaucrats five thousand years ago has some resemblance to our efforts against economic inequality today. But people have been fighting over that time to expand, and to refine, our scope of moral concern, as well. In the course of that five thousand years, we as human beings have been learning to reject age old practices as unjust: slavery, gender inequality, genocide, xenophobia and racism, sexual violence, etc. The learning curve has been steep and the cost in human lives enormous, but we have, in the past one hundred years, developed forms of human rights and international law that would have astounded Urukagina.
We are now grappling with how to extend our moral concern further, and to build protections in our institutions for people (and in some cases, other beings as well) we are recognizing as particularly vulnerable to the ways we have developed our communities historically. This calls for continued work theoretically and practically—we need analyses of new forms of justice, and social, political and legal effort to put these ideas into practice.
So this is one story about hope and social justice that doesn’t rely on faith in cosmological justice, or in hoping to achieve some ideal society in a distant future. It depends on seeing ourselves as part of the long march of social justice across time and space and realizing that to do this kind of work is part of what it means to be a human being. Most importantly, the struggle needs our assistance today.