Updated: May 30
Is justice necessary for prosperity or can we aim for prosperity now and leave justice for later? Can the good crowd out the right? If some of us have jobs and childcare, will we ignore that others have lost the right to vote.
The West, of course, from the Atlantic commerce of people and land to the current climate crisis has lived as though prosperity could do without justice. It turns out, however, that’s not the only tradition that could control our future.
Linda Darling’s book A History of Social Justice and Political Power in The Middle East: The Circles of Justice from Mesopotamia to Globalization (Routledge, 2013) gives us a different perspective to think about the future. She traces the long history of the Middle Eastern notion of the “circles of justice” that put justice before prosperity.
The notion of a circle of justice goes back to the earliest Mesopotamian kingdoms, beginning with Sumer and Akkad and ending with the Islamic revolution. In some form, it existed for over 4 millennia. The Circle of Justice did have various formulations, but also a few consistent principles, such as “the strong might not oppress the weak”. This principle did not exist as an isolated commandment, of course, but rather as part of Middle Eastern wisdom of how to govern.
One early formulation quoted in many Middle Eastern works had these four sentences:
No power without troops,
No troops without money,
No money without prosperity
No prosperity without justice and good administration.
Justice, in other words, is the basis for prosperity, prosperity allows people to pay taxes that can provide money to pay the troops and the troops ensure power (of the sovereign).
Justice is the basis for prosperity because the workers (peasants) will only be productive when treated fairly. As Darling writes: “The Near Eastern concept of state saw the ruler as far above the elites, the ally of the peasants against both elites and outside forces.” This meant not only that the state would build water ways and infrastructure so the farmers could be productive, but also that they would hear petitions from the peasants when they had complaints.
This was not exactly a civilian review board, but one can imagine something like it to make a comparison with our civilian institutions.
There are other formulations of the circles of justice. Darling quotes a common rendition from the 10th century:
The world is a garden, hedged in by sovereignty
Sovereignty is lordship, preserved by law
Law is administration, governed by the king
The King is a shepherd, supported by the army
The army are soldiers, fed by money
Money is revenue, gathered by the people
The people are servants, subjected by justice
Justice is happiness, the well-being of the world.
As we know, the modern West, whose fate was sealed by the Atlantic commerce of people, land, and products, choose prosperity over justice. In fact, its prosperity was founded on injustice:. This caused what I call a climate of injustice that has never been fully repaired.
At the same time, our democratic beliefs and practices certainly offer a different option than that of the rulers of the Middle Eastern kingdoms. Our democratic institutions have the possibility of promoting justice, however, when push comes to pull, they have almost always been used to promote prosperity over justice Now that prosperity is destroying the planet, we not only see our moral failure, but also the need for a different approach.
Western imperialism and its aftermath have made all of this very complicated. Still, we need all the help we can get, and maybe the wisdom of the “circles of justice” can at least open us to the possibility that prosperity without justice will fail to save the planet.