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It seems in most discussions regarding social, ethnic, (broadly-speaking) group reparations the arguments turn on either the idea that the current society that oppressed a former subgroup is responsible for atoning for past ills caused against particular collectives or that the current persons are not responsible for the past sins of their ancestors. The former position is generally tied up on some form of communitarian thought, whereas the latter is the liberal approach (crude depictions but I think fair enough for present purposes). It seems to me that in the public sphere advocates of either position have for the most part failed to have much imagination (the communitarians) or have been impetuous (the liberals). For example, the former often have sympathetic reasons for seeking reparations, which are generally expressed in terms of the memory of the past that looms over the present with a haunting presence. But then does not the advocacy of reparations simply amount to a self-satisfying quenching of guilt that the “status quo” feel for being privileged in society? Is a viable solution to really just throw some money at “them” so “we” can feel better and simultaneously assuage our guilt? Is not this very “solution” the very epitome of a commodified quick fix???

Regarding the liberal opposition to reparations, beyond the fact that there is no collective sympathy for the disparity in classification (in Bourdieu’s sense), there is also a real ignorance of the power of the past in the present. Each present moment is not a point-in-time devoid of the past. In many ways, the past is irreducibly tied up in the present, as its spectral companion. Every cotton t-shirt indelibly bears the virtual presence of lashings. Every cigarette virtually smells of the sweat of those who once slaved to cultivate this profitable crop. Thus, to argue that “we” are not responsible to pay for the sins of ancestors in many ways ignores the present structure that continues to exhibit a spectral oppression/violence from those past sins as well as (a liberal argument) limiting the freedom of persons within the “once-oppressed” community.

The liberal argument does not seem to be the best option for sympathetic or for egalitarian reasons; neither does it really make sense within a liberal paradigm. Then again, the former argument seems misguided as well, as nothing more than a sympathetic capitalist fix. A solution to this problem could be a modified Sartrean idea. Rather than permanent revolution, what we might be able to adopt is some form of permanent reparation. As Miroslav Volf claimed in Exclusion and Embrace, the original offence will never be satisfied by some form of penance. The original irruption/violation has a stigma that far exceeds any act of correction. This means that a society that bears significant historical wounds must seek a permanent solution – one that money or atemporal social programs will not satisfy. What needs to happen is that a complete overturning of social relations, ethnic boundaries, economic modalities, and political strategies would be effected in such a way as to create a true plane of equality. Of course, in one sense, pure equality can never be reached; the offence has already occurred, perhaps forever severing any hope of unity. However, by remaining in a constant state of reparative flux, society would be better prepared, motivated even, to face future challenges that arise while simultaneously seeking to create a semblance of social balance. Maybe is this is the best we can hope for…

Some questions remain: are we forever to be haunted by the presence of our collective sins??? Is this the symptom that must drive the State?