Saturday, March 29, 2008

Popular Justice


I taught Foucault's discussion of popular justice this last week, and then two things popped up on the radar screen to remind me of the continued relevance of this discourse.
  1. The Wall Street Journal (via here and here) had a story about corporate health plans' efforts to recoup payouts by claiming any damages won in injury suits. The particulars of the article involve a woman severely injured in a wreck with a semi. She will require life-long medical care, which her family hoped to pay for with the $400,000 injury settlement. But her employer--Wal-Mart--claimed the entire settlement as recompense for the $470,000 that their health-plan had already paid out for her care. Now the woman is reliant upon Medicare and Social Security checks for all her care.
  2. Another WSJ article (via here) is the latest account of retaliatory vandalism by home-owners going through foreclosures--they lose the house, and, before vacating, trash the place.
The latter story highlights a spontaneous and unorganized sort of popular justice. (Ironically, it seems to be conservative and business oriented media (like, say, the WSJ) that pays attention to these phenomena, publicizes them, and thereby acts as a vector for the transmission of the meme.) The former story lacks any act of popular justice, but seems to cry out for one. It seems to be precisely the sort of situation--large corporate actor decimates one worker's life in the name of its "fiduciary duty to the plan and the entire group of employees that are covered by it"--that, in 1970s France, or 1920s America, would have led to a Wal-Mart getting burned down.

The "economization" of justice, however, seems to militate against any action in the latter case, and shapes commentators' responses to the first case. After linking to the WSJ story, Megan McArdle--a self-professed libertarian--writes:
I don't get it. It's hardly the bank's fault that you can't make your mortgage payment. I mean, I understand the rage at fate that has pushed you out of your home and left your credit record in shreds--yea, even if you had a hand in that fate yourself. But I don't get pointless destruction.
Her commenters take the cue and run wit it:
Most people are quite reluctant to admit personal fault in these matters. It's so much easier to blame an external entity and then unleash rage as deemed appropriate.

A nation of victims means no one is responsible--except for the "evil" bank.

You probably also don't get buying houses you can't afford. People who do this are not overly endowed in the "dispassionate decision-mkaing" department.

I wonder about the "trashing people's lives." Isn't it more like corporations fail to enable the self-trashing of people's lives by insisting on responsibility and consequences? Hmmmm...sounds like a decent parent to me.

These people trash their former abodes for the exact same reason most of them are in the mess they're in: poor impulse control, arising from emotional immaturity.

I'm sorry, but it's not at all understandable. It's childish and, indeed, criminal. It's not the bank's fault that they're incapable of acting as adults either in financial or, as we have found out, behavioral, matters.

It's the bank's fault that the bank presumed it was dealing with adults who could make decisions for themselves, and didn't belong in an institution for the feeble-minded where decisions were made for them.

I am truly amazed at the number of individuals who think that because banks and mortgage companies acted greedily (that's the business they're in), it gives homeowners with poor judgment the right to default on loans that many of them are capable of making (California's jingle mail) or to even trash a home that will soon not be their property.

It is simple immaturity and lack of respect for the property of others. It is no different from puncturing someone's tires, or vandalizing a neighbor's property because of some dispute.

So, on the one hand, you have the business entity (bank, insurance company, Wal-Mart), which is greedy but rational. It behaves like an adult, honors its fiduciary responsibilities, and expects that everyone else will do so as well. On the other hand, you have the short-sighted, irresponsible, and immature individual (employee, borrower, renter), who lacks respect for others, is childish and incapable of controlling her/his impulses, and thinks of her/himself as a victim all the time.

Monetarized power is not power, on this analysis. Monetarized desire is not desire (i.e., it cannot be a childish impulse). Only those who are reduced to using their bodies as the only means available are guilty of victim-think. Legal power and monetary power are identical.

Fascinating stuff.

UPDATE: A smart analysis of the McArdle post can be found here.