Dialogue  April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4


Subaltern Global Justice and National Identity


R.C. Sinha*



The present paper entitled “Subaltern Global Justice and National Identity” attempts to address three issues. First, globalization in itself is value free. It is neither good nor bad. It assumes a value when linked with the question of justice or injustice. The question of subaltern global justice is related to the third world and underdeveloped countries. The question of global justice involves the preferential treatment of underdeveloped nations. I think, globalization as a process of development is just and globalization as an instrument of exploitation is unjust. Globalization is faced with a dilemma. If we go against globalization, then we will be technologically backward and condemned to be poor and underdeveloped. The backwardness will cause poverty. As a matter of fact, poverty is a moral evil and responsible for many immoral activities. So in order to get rid of poverty and backwardness we have to accept technology based globalization. Peter Singer observes, “One hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx gave a one-sentence summary of his theory of history: ‘The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.’ Today he could have added: The jet plane, the telephone, and the internet gives you a global society with the transnational corporation and the World Economic Forum.1 Technology has changed everything. But the development of technology and globalization causes dehumanization... Man is alienated from himself. Man becomes a cog in the wheel. Dehumanization is equally evil. So we are faced with a paradox of globalization. Globalization is linked with development. Development is linked with well-being of humanity. Sustainable development is morally desirable. Wanton development is morally undesirable.

     Secondly, I contend that subaltern global justice is not logically incompatible with National Identity. This idea has been shaped in the three notable books relating to the problem of global justice and National Identity. The book entitled “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman, who gives a brief history of the twenty-first century scenario of global development. This book gives a vivid account of globalization. It makes us to see this globe in a new perspective. We have no idea as to how the twenty-first century history will unfold in the age of globalization. Friedman explains how the flattening of the world happened at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The world is flat means that the world has become a global village. The world has become too small. The world has become a global village due to the fast pace of communication. Friedman says after his return from the Bangalore city of India, “Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down the history as the man who first made this discovery, I returned home and shared my discovery only with my wife and only in whisper. ‘Honey, I confided, I think the world is flat.’2 Another book entitled “The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order” by Samuel Huntington also helped me to understand the problem of globalization and National Identity. Henery Kissinger commented that this is one of the most important books to have emerged since the end of the cold war. The subtitle of the first chapter of this book reads “Flags and Cultural Identity.” In the very opening sentence of the introduction the problem of identity has been discussed. Huntington says that global politics has become multicivilizational. In the late 1980s the communist world collapsed. The cold war became history. The most important distinction among nations is not ideological, political, or economic but cultural according to Huntington. In the words of Samuel Huntington “Nation states remain the principal actors in world affairs.”3 After reading these books, I tried to work out that these two problems are not logically incompatible as it appears. Peter Singer wondered that the most influential work on the conception of Justice is John Rawls’s  “A Theory of Justice” In this book John Rawls failed to discuss the issue of Global Injustice. Peter Singer observes “I was astonished that a book with that title, nearly 600 pages long could utterly fail to discuss the injustice of the extremes of wealth and poverty that exist between different societies”4 I think that John Rawls’s  conceptions of justice as fairness presumes that this world is not just. This is true that we do not live in a just and fair world. John Rawls observes “I will comment on the conception of justice presented in “A Theory of Justice” a conception I call “justice as fairness.”5 The question is: what is global justice? It is not very clear as to what global justice means? In this connection, I mention the book titled “The Idea of Justice” by Amartya Sen. Prof. Sen begins with the conception of injustice in order to understand justice because he understands justice as the absence of injustice. He focusses on comparative judgments of what is “less” or more “just.” “At the heart of Sen’s argument is a respect for reasoned differences in our understanding of what a just society really is. National Identity is a fact and not figment of imagination. Tolstoy in his most celebrated book “War and Peace” upholds that National Identity is the root cause of war. Amartya Sen in his book titled “Identity and Violence” adheres that National Identity is the cause of violence. Hence, Tolstoy as well as Amartya Sen in order to avoid war and violence suggested to transcend National Identity. They advocated universalism and globalization. They discarded National Identity. But I do not subscribe to the views of Tolstoy and Amartya Sen. To suggest that one should transcend National Identity is to suggest that one should skip out of his own skin. So the suggestion of Tolstoy and Amartya Sen is not practical.

      Thirdly, my contention is that global justice stipulates respect for “Others”. By “Others,” I mean here other nations and their identities. Global justice demands that developed countries should give just and fair treatment to “Others” who are deprived and underdeveloped. This boils down to the point that global justice does not mean equal treatment to all nations. Ordinarily, it is held that global justice contemplates equal treatment to all nations irrespective of race, colour and nationality. But I do not subscribe to this principle of equal treatment. This is an egalitarian view of global justice. My submission is that global justice does not mean equal treatment to unequals. Global justice cannot afford to give equal treatment to developed, developing and underdeveloped countries. I propose subaltern conception of global justice which is concerned with the upliftment of marginalized nations.

       Here I conceive two types of global justice: one is egalitarian and the other is subaltern conception of global justice. The egalitarian conception of global justice subscribes to the notion of equal treatment to all nations. Another kind of global justice which I propose is the “Subaltern Conception of Global Justice.'' I adhere that equal treatment to unequals is in itself an act of injustice. We can’t treat developed and underdeveloped countries equally in matters of awarding grants to developed and underdeveloped nations. The principle of equality does not do justice to backward and underdeveloped nations. As a matter of fact, underdeveloped nations deserve more grants than developed nations. Hence, I understand that the conception of global justice is distributive in nature. Aristotle in his book Nichomachean Ethics came up with the suggestion that distributive justice consists of treating equals equally and unequal’s unequally. Distributive justice is based on the principle of equity. There is obvious distinction between equity and equality. The principle of equity is the core element of subaltern global justice. The principle of equality is the basis of egalitarian global justice. Equality is the principle, regardless of their inputs; all nations should be given an equal share of the rewards. By global responsibility I mean nations who have the most should share their resources with those who have less. Global justice is distributive because it is conceptualized as fairness associated with outcomes and distribution of resources. By subaltern conception of global justice I mean that those who are marginalized, should get fair treatment, so that they come to the Centre. This subaltern conception of global justice attempts to deconstruct the age-old egalitarian structure of the globe by bringing the marginalized nations into the mainstream. The conception of subaltern global justice sounds novel and requires some illustration. The term “subaltern” was popularized by Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramci. The dictionary meaning of this term is subordinate in army structure. Antonio Gramci used it to denote the proletariat class. In the Oxford University some of the historians  led by Prof. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Shivak formed a group of subaltern studies. They started writing history from the viewpoint of a common man. Ordinarily, history is written about the life and achievements of kings and queens and ordinary man is put on the margin. Actually, this term “subaltern” was popularized by Gramci to counter the ideology of fascism. In Aristotelian logic this term has been used to explain the relationship between two propositions. Aristotle used this terminology to explain the relationship of opposition of propositions. Aristotle used the term “subaltern” to demonstrate the logical relationship between two propositions having the same subject and predicate but differing in quantity. I found that the subaltern group of history writers are not fully aware of the logical implications and its application in the field of social and political philosophy. I tried to apply this relation of opposition of propositions in the field of social relationship and proposed a subaltern view of morality which stipulates that morality of marginalized people is different from the morality of elite and the egalitarian society.

        In this backdrop, I propose “Subaltern Conception of Global Justice” which urges that it is the responsibility and moral obligation of developed nations to ameliorate the condition of underdeveloped nations. Global justice demands that backward nations should be uplifted and developed. The inequality prevailing in the global society should be lessened. In 2005 & 2007, I visited U.K. and got a chance to travel by train to Edinburg. I saw everywhere it was written on the walls that “poverty is history” Peter Singer in his book entitled One World, “observes”.... even if there were no altruistic concern among the rich nations to help the world’s poor, their own self-interest should lead them to do so.”6 In the global village, other’s poverty becomes one’s own problem. One of the most influential philosophers like Peter Singer considers ethical issues surrounding globalization. Michael Walzer observes on the back of the book that many people have written about the economic meaning of globalization. In One World Peter Singer explains its moral meaning. Peter Singer shows how global ethics rather than a nationalistic approach can provide answers to global problems. My contention is different from Peter Singer. I contend that National Identity and global justice are not mutually exclusive. The subaltern conception of global justice does not run counter to National Identity. I hold that National Identity and the concept of global justice are not logically incompatible. National Identity is the primary focus of political legitimacy and the pursuit of justice. To me, National Identity is a fact. The concept of global justice is not very clear. I understand that the concept of global justice is not concerned with war crimes but with socio-economic justice. In this paper, I have concentrated on two focal issues of traditional political philosophy. One is the relation between justice and National Identity and the other is the scope and limits of equality as a demand of justice. Both are of crucial importance in determining whether we can even form an intelligible ideal conception of global justice. The issue of justice presumes sovereignty. National Identity comprises two most important components: one is sovereignty and, another is cultural values. According to Hobbes, sovereignty is an essential component of National Identity. Hobbes argues that although we can discover the true principles of justice by moral reasoning alone, but actual justice cannot be achieved except sovereign of nation. ‘Justice is the property of the relations among human beings. The liberal requirements of global justice includes a strong component of equality among nations. This is a specifically political demand which applies to the basic structure of a global society.’

     I have understood global justice in two ways: one is the egalitarian justice and another is the subaltern conceptions of global justice. Egalitarian conception of global justice presupposes the principle of equality. The hallmarks of egalitarian justice are Rights and Equal opportunity to all. It seems very difficult to resist Hobbes’s claim about the relation between justice and sovereignty. I think that sovereignty is an important component of National Identity. Broadly speaking, we can understand two aspects of structure of global society. The basic structure of global society consists of sovereignty and superstructure consists of cultural values. Hobbes construed the principles of justice as a set of rules and practices that would serve the interest of everyone. The collective self-interest cannot be realized by the independent motivation of self-interested individuals, unless each of them has the assurance that others will conform if he does. That assurance requires the external incentive provided by the National Identity. But the same need of assurance is present if one construed the principles of justice differently, and attributes to nations a non-self-interested motive that leads them to want to live on fair terms of some kind with other nations. Even if justice is taken to include not only collective self-interest but also the elimination of morally arbitrary inequalities. I believe that the situation is structurally not very different for conception of global justice that are much more based on the conception of “Others.” The conception of global justice without moral base may fall flat. The global justice without sovereignty as stipulated by Hobbes has no practical expressions. If we think from the moral perspective, then absence of global sovereignty is not a serious obstacle to the concept of global justice. But we have to accept the National Identities of “Others” and then we can think of co-operation and moral assurance to maintain moral relations among the citizens of the globe. We may reject the Hobbesian contention that justice is the collective self-interest. It is true that for most of us, the ideal of global justice stems from moral motives that cannot be entirely reduced to self-interest. Global conception of justice includes much more than a condition of legally enforced peace and security among interacting nations.

      The inequality in the world economy is obvious.  Roughly twenty per cent people of the globe live on less than a dollar a day. This situation is changing, as productivity growth speeds up. Inequality prevailing in the global scenario is so grim that global justice may be a side issue. The urgent issue is what can be done in the world economy to reduce extreme global poverty and economic inequality.

       There are basic questions as what we should do to fulfil the global justice in the absence of global sovereignty. Global justice requires more than mere humanitarian assistance to those who are deprived and marginalized and in desperate need. This is a fact that injustice can persist. Humanitarian duties hold in virtue of the absolute rather than relative level of needs of people. Developed nations are in a position to help underdeveloped nations. Justice by contrast is concerned with the relations between the conditions of different classes of people and the causes of inequality between them. The question arises as to how to respond to world inequality in general, from the point of view of global justice? Postmodern conception of global justice imposes some limitations on the powers of sovereignty. Justice demands fairness or equality of opportunity from the practices that govern our relations with “Others.” By others, I mean National Identities of other nations. Global justice is concerned with the relations between the conditions of different nations. The question of global justice will depend on moral conceptions of the relations. There is always possibility of clashes between National Identities. There is nothing like global sovereignty to deal with global problems.

        Here, there are two conceptions of global justice. One is egalitarian which contemplates equal concern for all. We have to live with just terms with each others, who are fellow members of the globe. Egalitarians think that this moral principle of equal treatment apply in principle to all our relations to all “Others,” not just to our fellow citizens. If we take the egalitarian conception of global justice, then separate National Identities pose obstacle to the establishment or even the pursuit of global justice. But it would be morally inconsistent not to wish, for the world as a whole, a common system of institution that could attempt to realize the same standards of fairness or equal opportunity that one wants for one’s own nation. The accident of being born in an  underdeveloped country rather than a developed country is as arbitrary a determinant of one’s fate as the accident of being born into a poor rather than a rich family in the same country. In the absence of global sovereignty, we may not be able to describe the world as unjust, but the absence of global justice is a defect in the age of globalization. Egalitarian justice can be realized in a federal system in which members of different nations had special responsibility towards one another. But that would be legitimate only against the background of a global system. At present we do not have any foolproof system to legislate justice and injustice in the world. The moral appeal to powerful nations cannot work because they protect their interest. So the global justice in a sense will be the justice to safeguard the interest of the stronger. Naturally the quest of dominance in the words of Noam Chomsky will mar the sense of global justice.

      The egalitarian justice suffers from the defects because to treat unequals equally is against the principle of global justice. The conception of global justice which I call as subaltern conception of global justice is concerned with the well-being of marginalized nations. This conception is exemplified by John Rawls view that justice is well off of the worst off. This conception is concerned with the socio-economic situation of the globe. The subaltern conception of global justice presumes that the National Identities of all nations cannot be effaced. It is not plausible to do away with National Identities. Nations do not lose their sovereignty. Every nation has its boundaries and population. It exercises its sovereign power over its citizens. Citizens have responsibilities towards others. The responsibility is sui-generics. The obligation of justice and responsibility arise as a result of special relations. The subaltern conception of global justice does not stipulate equal treatment to unequals. The developed and the underdeveloped cannot be treated equally. Hence, the subaltern conception of global justice is distributive in nature. John Rawls insists that different principles apply to different situations. Rawls observes “.....the correct regulative principle for a thing depends on the nature of that thing.”7 In global justice we contend that nations are free to preserve their National Identities. In global context, we have to maintain mutual respect and equality of status among nations. This is more difficult than the traditional Hobbesian privileges of sovereignty on the world stage. The responsibility and duties governing relations among nations include, according to John Rawls, not only non-aggression and fidelity to treaties, but also some developmental assistance to “peoples living under unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime.”8 The consequence seems that if one wants to avoid moral inconsistencies and is favourable to subaltern conception of global justice, then one should favour a global difference principle. Moral consistency requires taking nation as the moral unit in a conception of global justice. There is no logical or moral inconsistency in accepting National Identity as moral unit in global justice. The way to resist egalitarian theory of global justice would deny that there is a universal principle of equal concern, equal status and equal opportunities. The subaltern conception of global justice objects the arbitrary inequalities. National Identity gives entitlement to be just and maintain the integrity of the nation, but only on the condition that we must learn to respect ‘others identities.’ Mere economic interaction at a global level does not trigger the heightened standard of global justice. There is nothing like global sovereignty at present. There is nothing like global identity. The global identity is dependent on National Identity. There are a number of less formal structures that are responsible for a great deal of global governance. National institutions are responsible to their own citizens. But global network does not have the similar responsibility of legislating global justice. Global justice is not merely trading on global level. Global justice is not merely pursuit of common aims by unequal partners. Global justice is based on moral persuasion. I think that there is a difference between moral obligation, however strong it may be and global justice done and implemented with authority. We cannot ignore the practical difficulty to implement the global justice. But we cannot leave this globe at the mercy of the strong and mighty one. Noam Chomsky in his famous book titled Hegemony or Survival talks about America’s quest for global dominance. We have to think in terms of global justice instead of global dominance in the twenty-first century. Noam Chomsky conceived globalization as a new face of capitalism. It means that globalization suffers from all the defects of capitalism. I maintain that globalization in itself is not good or bad but it suffers when it bears the face of new capitalism as contemplated by Noam Chomsky. The subaltern conception of global justice seems plausible because it deconstructs grand hegemony of powerful nations. It grants autonomy to National Identity and urges to deconstruct the egalitarian conception of global justice which prepares the ground for rich to become richer and poor to become poorer. The marginalized nations should not be spectators but participants in the process of development and global justice.

       In the above article, I have tried to develop subaltern conception of global justice. I contend that National Identity is a fact. We can’t efface the sense of belonging to the nation in which one is born and brought up. Secondly, to talk about global justice is meaningless unless it bridges the gap between the rich and poor nations. At present we find the global economic process is operating in such a way that rich become more rich nation and underdeveloped remains deprived and marginalized.





1. Peter Singer, One World, Yale University Press, 2004, p.10

2. Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat, Farrar, Strus and Girous, New York, first edition, 2005, p.5)

3. Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster .U.K.
  2002, p. 21.

4. Peter Singer, One World, Yale University Press, second edition, 2004, p.8

5.John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971, preface, p.1

6. Peter Singer, One World, Yale University Press, second edition, 2004, p.7

7.John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, (Revised edition), 1971, p. 25.

8.John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard university press, 1999, p. 37

*Dr. Ramesh Chandra Sinha, Former  Professor & Head, Department of Philosophy Patna University, India and Former  Senior Fellow, Indian Council of Philosophical Research, New Delhi.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati