Defining the relationship between archives and social justice


This chapter examines social justice in historical and contemporary perspective and offers perspectives from multiple disciplines and practical politics to unpack, frame, and understand social justice and injustice before offering a definition of social justice. It then provides a systematic review of the archival literature up through 2017 to chart the rise of archival social justice research and summarises the many arenas it touches upon. Before concluding, it examines the debates over archival ethics and the adoption of a social justice mandate. The subtext of this chapter emphasises the importance and necessity to develop more effective impact and evaluation methodologies to better understand the relationship between archives and social justice in all of its manifestations. This challenge is taken up in Chapter 3.

Social justice in historical and contemporary perspective

Concepts and practices of justice and injustice have been infused into human societies for millennia, based on complex cooperative, prescribed, and coerced relationships. Often expressed as shared values and social and cultural norms, unjust social hierarchies have been scaled along a range of attributes such as class, gender, race, genealogy, language, ideology, and religion. Many of the purported “natural” differences between individuals and groups were ascribed to extra-human divine origins to give them greater power and legitimacy, despite the hard fact that they actually resulted from socially constructed “fictions” manufactured from “imagined orders and devised scripts” to establish and sustain social inequality. History regularly denies these “fictional origins” of social differentiation and instead upholds them not only as “natural and inevitable” but also “just.” All complex societies manifest social injustice and discrimination based on such “imagined” hierarchies. These fictions, through their embeddedness and routinisation in social interactions and transmission to and internalisation in individual psychologies, produce and reproduce a “vicious circle” feedback loop of cause and effect. These imagined social orders andtheir assumptions and behaviours, often supported by structures of power and the threat and use of force, manifest as concrete lived realities that benefit and privilege some members and groups of a society whilst exploiting and dominating others (Gil 2004, pp. 33-34; Harari 2014, p. 149-161).

These dynamics arc traceable to the onset of writing systems in emergent agricultural states that evolved into “recording, registering and measuring machinc(s)” that enabled “conscription, forced labour, land seizures ... and new taxes on croplands’’ (Scott 2017, p. 139). In short, documentary-based social control and oppression. Across the ages, theological, philosophical, and socio-political programmes on what makes a society just confined themselves to partial application of rights. Inequality, unequal resource allocations, and oppression were regularly rationalised, such as when slavery and indentured servitude existed alongside “democracy” for a privileged minority. Even the Enlightenment’s (seventeenth to eighteenth centuries) emphases on reason, rationalism, and sccularity, continued a view of justice based on legitimised social, political, and economic inequalities. The paradox that restricted justice and equality for a circumscribed few based on race, gender, inheritance, and class remained entrenched despite calls for broader individual freedoms and equality of rights by the revolutionary political changes in Europe and North America during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries. These considerable blind spots over how expansively such concepts were to be applied were nowhere more apparent than in the trans-oceanic empires established by modem European nation-states. Behind modem “liberalism’s abstract promises of human freedom, rational progress, and social equality” were glaring contradictions between its calls for universal rights as a philosophical and political project and the simultaneous violence and injustices that it regularly enacted through slavery, subjugation and extermination of Indigenous peoples, extractive wealth building, and the expropriation of land throughout the world (Lowe 2015, pp. 2-5). Colonial recordkeeping was an indispensable instrument for these processes, pioneering new exploitative forms of management control for profitmaking while absenting the voices and lived experiences of the subjugated (Bastian 2006; Rosenthal 2016). Information intensive “objective” and “scientific” epistemological systems arose that manufactured racial hierarchies and contrived declarations on the intrinsic inequality between peoples of different cultural groups and economic classes as a means to sanction imperial and state violence, domination, and injustice (Ewen and Ewen 2006). The birth of nation-state archives across Europe at this time restricted access to favoured researchers to ensure sympathetic interpretations of empire building while limiting the possibility for “oppositional histories.” Archivists at this time used their power as gatekeepers to “silence” potentially embarrassing sources that would unsettle state-sanctioned narratives by withholding them from users. Despite an increasing professionalisation and promotion of “scientific standards” and “historical truth” for both historians and archivists at this time and moving forward, these biasing traits remained resilient (Berger 2013).

The nineteenth century witnessed heightened awareness of the profound disparity between justice as a philosophical ideal and the vast ongoing inequalities evident in even the most “advanced” polities based on capitalist economies. This consciousness led to the rise of a broad range of reform and revolutionary movements that connected inequality to the material political and economic conditions of domination and exploitation that resulted from human choices and not from an inevitable “natural” order. From late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, systematic pragmatic responses emerged to challenge the structural dimensions of extreme inequality and their legitimising belief systems. Labour, housing, child welfare, women’s suffrage, immigration, public health, poverty, colonialism, and race were all targeted for reform, and connections were explicitly made between the struggles of individuals to the broader societal structures they lived within. In the United States, some of these concerns manifested through “New Deal” legislation in response to the Great Depression of the 1930s that sought to minimise extreme inequality through social welfare entitlements, labour rights, and taxation to redistribute wealth. This effort to rccraft the state’s responsibilities to its citizens with special emphasis on economics and civil rights became a cornerstone of modem liberalism, as it evolved in the immediate post-World War II era up through “Great Society” of the mid-1960s (Bell 2015). At the same time, European social democratic parties united around and promoted similar social justice principles: strong labour rights and state regulation of capitalist economies, wealth redistribution through taxation to protect against extreme inequality, and provision of universal quality education and healthcare (Barry 2005, pp. 5-6). There simultaneously arose an array of social justice movements seeking fundamental change: civil rights, women’s, anti-war, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, ethnic and multicultural, as well as struggles targeting corrections, health, education, welfare, interventionism/ militarism, and the environment.

During this period, these same nations continued to be systemically and pervasively unjust in their colonial relationships with non-Westem societies and countries. Cesairc’s (2000, pp. 31-33) scathing mid-twentieth-ccntury critique of centuries of European colonialism persuasively argued that the justifications deployed for the global spread of “Western civilization”—evangelisation, philanthropy, overcoming disease, ignorance, and tyranny, and the promotion of the rule of law—were deceptive hypocrisies that were neither rationalisablc nor defensible under claims of “reason” and “conscience.” The post-World War II era saw the rise of anti-colonial socialist independence movements across Africa, Latin America, and Asia that called and fought for more just control and distribution of local natural and other resources, more humane labour conditions, and acknowledgment and protection of diverse cultures and heritages. Despite a wave of success, national liberation movements across the “Third World” in the second half of the twentieth century, these new nations largely failed to sustain new societies based on deeper equality, and instead often shored up pre-liberation social hierarchies; became proxies of and were disrupted by globally dominant Cold War antagonists through coercion, destabilisation, and violence; and succumbed to painful debt and structural economic adjustments demanded by finance capital (Prashad 2007, pp. xvii-xix).

The past four decades have witnessed the dramatic global rise of a new dominant social and economic organising ideology—neoliberalism—that has dismantled many of the social justice protections and advances of the previous century. Neoliberalism expanded widely under conservative rule in the 1980s and today is embraced by ruling parties in Western democracies across the mainstream political spectrum. Ncolibcralism promotes competition as the “defining characteristic of human relations” and advocates the “free market” as the pathway for a better society. State intervention is seen as inimical to individual liberty and a distortion of the market’s natural wisdom. It actively opposes “efforts to create a more equal society” which it secs as “counterproductive and morally corrosive” (Monbiot 2016). The fundamentals of ncolibcralism include diminished labour rights and worker protections, deregulation, privatisation, reduced public expenditures on education, healthcare, social welfare and services to the poor, and elimination of the notion of the “public good” (Martinez and Garcia Undated). These processes have led to dramatically expanding national and global economic inequalities while obscuring them through the concept of “meritocracy” that disguises the substantial advantages of the well-resourced in terms of education, access to wealth, legal expertise, and systemic rules that favour wealth growth and hoarding (The Rules 2013, 2017; Monbiot 2016).

Ncolibcralism also left an imprint on archival practice, research, and education. The adoption of neoliberal concepts and language such as customers, cost efficiency, measurement, outsourcing, and profitability arc all well reflected across these areas. In light of contracting public funding which traditionally supported the heritage sector as a public good worthy of investment, archives have been compelled to increasingly rely on philanthropic and private funding and public-private relationships to survive. These new forms of subsidisation often support the priorities and objectives of the funder while limiting the agcncy/expcrtisc of archives. These trends are particularly damaging to community archives of non-dominant groups who struggle in the status quo dominated “marketplace of ideas.” As more content is digitised, it is increasingly beholden to for-profit subscription models that seek greater control over intellectual property rights while also narrowing open access and eroding long-held notions of intellectual freedom, as better-resourced populations can more easily draw on such content for their intellectual pursuits. Further, much top tier archival scholarship and literature is cordoned through author transfers of intellectual property rights to publishers who impose high fees and costly licenses. Archival education and scholarship arc increasingly feeling the pressures of the corporatised university which favours skill development to serve the marketplace over critical thinking and entrenching the exploitation of adjunct faculty. In the very competitive grants environment, well-resourced institutions have distinct advantages that can render “merit” through an unequal playing field (Cifor and Lee 2017, pp. 11-16. See also Punzalan and Caswell 2016).

Overall, changes to the global and political economic order charted above contribute to and combine with a range of other markers fomenting greater inequality and injustice—global warming and environmental crises, resource extraction and exhaustion, militarism and expanding arms sales, invasive surveillance technologies, forced labour and migration, sexual abuse and trafficking, gender violence, racism and xenophobia, resurgent slavery, supranational corporate impunity, electoral disenfranchisement, and a loss of trust in institutions and electoral politics due to the widespread belief that they arc irreversibly corrupt and increasingly oligarchic in nature. We thus find ourselves living in a disillusioned fragmented society, without a clear vision for an implementable alternative to the neoliberal order (Bauman and Donskis 2016). However, alongside deepening despair, apathy, and anxiety, we also are witnessing the continuation of social justice struggles across the globe. We believe that the past is a potent resource that can be harnessed as a guidepost that a more just world is possible and that archives can be a crucial component for promoting such aspirations (Barry 2005, pp. 233-235, 249-250; International Labour Office 2012; Appadurai 2013; Bauman and Donskis 2013; Gilens and Page 2014; Ahmed 2017; Lanchcster 2017; Slovic 2017).

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