‘Reparations are a substitute for progressive politics’

The author of a new book on the reparations industry, John Torpey, explains why payouts for past suffering are not the way forward.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Politics

‘We have seen a dramatic shift from the Labour movements’ former rallying cry of “don’t mourn, organise” to a sensibility that insists we must “organise to mourn”. This change is something that concerns me.’

John Torpey, professor of sociology at the City University in New York, is talking to me about his new book, Making Whole What has been Smashed: On Reparations Politics, a critical analysis of what he says has ‘become the demand du jour in progressive circles during the 1990s’.

The book explores the rise in recent years of political efforts to rectify past injustices – including African-Americans claiming reparations for slavery, and Holocaust survivors demanding compensation from governments and banks. While he is sympathetic to victims holding aggressors to account, he is worried that the trend is part of a more inward and backward-looking politics.

His interest in the issue was piqued in the late 1990s. ‘I was in Canada and I came across a story about the Healing Fund’ – a fund-raising and educational campaign to address the impacts of residential schools on First Nation people.

‘My first thought was that States are finally being held accountable and First Nation people are going to get some much needed money’, he says. After this he saw ‘similar stories everywhere’- including one in the irreverent spoof online publication, ‘The Onion’, entitled ‘Four Generations of Americans Demand Sitcom Reparations’, joking that the major television networks should compensate people for wasting their time on bad TV.

‘At this point I wanted to see it as fundamentally positive for repressed groups, but I saw that it raised important issues which needed interrogation; questions about the meaning and desirability of reparations as a way of achieving political aims and the impact of such an outlook’, he says.

The book details the historical development of reparations. The term ‘reparations’ was once used in connection with fines exacted among states, most often for damages incurred during wartime. Today the term has widened to making amends to non-state groups and individuals – and reparations can be economic, to individuals and collectives; material redress such as land claims of indigenous peoples; or symbolic, such as apologies; or the creation of memorials and museums.

The book includes three much-needed case studies. Torpey examines the redress settlements concerning Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians who were interned during World War Two; then examines the case of reparations for Black Americans, and the variety of reparations politics in contemporary Southern Africa, in particular in Nambia and South Africa.

The surge of reparations, he explains, is due to particular features of our times. He writes that ‘efforts to rectify past wrongs’ have ‘arisen in part as a substitute for expansive visions of an alternative human future of the kind that animated the socialist movements of the preceding century, which have been overwhelmingly discredited since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.’

The origins of the reparations movement can be traced to reparations for the Holocaust. ‘The prominence of the Holocaust has been important. The success of Jewish groups in getting compensation for the suffering from World War Two has been a paradigm for other groups.’ Indeed, he suggests in his book that ‘Far from merely competing with or undermining such efforts, the Holocaust has become the central metaphor for all politics concerned with ‘making whole what has been smashed.’

He argues that there has been an increasing focus on the past. ‘Reparations comprises the tip of an iceberg of recent efforts to come to terms with the past. This past-orientated outlook is new and it is a major shift in the way we think and talk about politics.’ This is not a good shift. ‘Under normal circumstances the past returns only fleetingly and remains simply part of the stock of ideas on which people draw to make sense of their lives. But it is scarcely the predominant part; ordinarily, people maintain a balance between past present, and future that allows them to move forward in their everyday lives.’ He continues: ‘An excessive preoccupation with the past is usually a sign that something is amiss – whether in the manner of nostalgia or of failing to let go of past troubles – for individuals as well as societies.’

He argues that this obsession with the past stifles radical politics. ‘As a form of politics, of people mobilising in an effort to achieve or get things done, you have to ask if this is the right way. It seems inhospitable to serious change in the present – to resolving material inequality for example. It doesn’t seem promising.’ It can also breed fragmentation in the place of solidarity. ‘It cultivates a certain kind of identity politics, pitting groups against each other, when joining forces would be better. My impulse is that we need a universal politics which help all the poor.’

And he is concerned that contemporary reparations gives much greater weight to psychic harms and trauma. ‘There is a tendency in this to see ourselves as frail, as lacking resilience and always needing professional help. Now of course, people have had hard times, excessively so in some cases, but people can rise above it and build a future. We need to give people a bit more credit.’ All this together reflects ‘an unmistakeable decline of a more explicitly future-orientated politics’. As he writes: ‘in contrast to the view that reparations politics amounts to the triumph of Enlightenment modes of thinking, I would argue that the phenomenon is a kind of transitional substitute for the progressive politics associated with the Enlightenment, cut out for an age of diminished political expectations.’

He sees no future in reparations. ‘Reparations cannot replace the elaboration of a new, progressive vision of the human future out of the shards of twentieth-century history.’ Torpey would like to see a new and different political movement. ‘My hope would be that in the future there develops a movement attuned to changing inequality that will be relatively uninterested in the past, differences and creating vulnerability, but which seeks to create a better life’.

‘What I would like to do is contribute to the suring up of a future-orientated vision, to melt the differences between people and to strengthen views on what we have in common and what is really possible.’ Torpey quotes with admiration Jubilee South Africa’s George Dor who said, ‘unless, it’s future-orientated, reparations are not a good idea’. ‘Now that’s a good idea’, he smiles.

John Torpey s speaking at the ICA on Slavery and the Reparations debate on Friday 9 June.

Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics, is published by Harvard University Press. Buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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Topics Politics


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