Suddenly, it is in vogue to discuss economic inequality. The idea of inequality and how it is interpreted today is relatively new in human history and has its roots in the Enlightenment period. By the same token the discourse surrounding it is old enough to have evolved greatly since this period to where it has finally entered the public consciousness via the mainstream broadcast media today. As usual, now that the quicksand is up to our chins, we have decided it’s time to start looking for help.
In many ways, having a rational conversation about economic inequality is like trying to have a rational discussion about climate change. Both have reached a consensus within their respective scientific communities that these issues are influenced by human behavior. Problematically, both are also highly charged and emotional matters being debated in high definition by a shallow pool of uniformed talent that panders to the lowest common intellectual denominator among us.
Many of the themes examined by Enlightenment philosophers, scientists and scholars remain highly relevant and are worth revisiting. These figures attempted to define the role of man in civil society, which was revolutionary thinking as civilizations emerged from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. From the mid-17th to the mid-19th centuries, philosophers such as Descartes, Locke and Rousseau, scientists from Newton to Darwin, and writers such as Dostoevsky, Dickens and Melville created enduring masterpieces that challenge our concepts of liberty, democracy and the rights of man to this day.
Yet while understanding the foundations of inequality is instructive when examining it through a modern lens, there is a disruptive shift that has occurred that cannot be overlooked. The idea that corporations enjoy the very liberties we associate with humans is a dangerous departure from the theories suggested by the intellectual luminaries highlighted above.
Before we move further on, it is important to acknowledge that inequality is multifaceted and takes on several meanings depending upon the context in which it is raised. Gender and race, for example, are significant topics that move the discussion in meaningful directions but often correlate to the level of agitation. As economic inequality can serve as both the underlying cause and product of these factors, it therefore provides a more complete template for analysis. Without the polemic that surrounded the nature of liberty and man’s place in society, we would have little concept of equality and therefore no ability to debate tributaries such as sexual orientation, gender and race.
Another reason it is important to become familiar with the arguments proffered by the great Enlightenment thinkers is that their words informed the founders and subsequent leaders of this nation. For many, America represented the living enlightened experiment across the sea. This great ideological laboratory, theoretically free from old world constraints was a curiosity to Enlightenment theorists and a danger to established secular and theological rulers.
At times, the distance between this period and present day is incredibly short. To wit, the celebrated, and at times rancorous debate between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine still plays out today, though diminished in both eloquence and erudition. Yet no matter how diminished our discourse has become and how far we have traveled from the egalitarian notions that inspired our founding, America as the “Enlightened state” is a portrayal we hold dear to as a people.
To be useful in today’s circumstances, any renewed discourse must begin by focusing on the nature and definition of equality in moral and economic terms before attempting to prescribe solutions to inequality. Until we evaluate our national sentiment toward inequality and determine what exactly we are striving for as a society, any practical solutions will be lost in the toxic ether of our rhetoric. Gross inequality is no longer a theoretical exercise, nor is it exclusive to underdeveloped or developing nations. It is a global phenomenon and one that is best illustrated by conditions in the wealthiest nation on Earth.
In purely economic terms, inequality is both America’s greatest challenge and number one export.
In an effort to focus the conversation on economic inequality in advance of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Oxfam International released a new report on the widening economic gap in the world. Its findings are hardly startling, but they are staggering. The report, compiled from numerous sources, concludes the following:
- Almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population.
- The wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion. That’s 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population.
- The bottom half of the world’s population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world.
- Seven out of 10 people live in countries where economic inequality has increased in the last 30 years.
- The richest one percent increased their share of income in 24 out of 26 countries for which we have data between 1980 and 2012.
- In the United States, the wealthiest one percent captured 95 percent of post-financial crisis growth since 2009, while the bottom 90 percent became poorer.
These findings seem more like verdicts; judgments handed down on capitalist society from the high court of natural law. How we act to reform these conclusions relies on our willingness to objectively interpret them and decide whether these are acceptable characteristics of modern society.
The Original Discourse
The title of this piece and much of the sentiment found within is drawn from the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s work A Discourse On Inequality, published in 1755. In it he attempts to establish the nature of inequality by distinguishing between the perceived rights of “savage” man and civil society. The savage man, he claims, lives predominantly in a state of nature that values present existence and subsistence above all things. The civilized man lives within a system of laws designed to protect artificial geographic boundaries and places an economic value on property beyond what it provides for subsistence.
“Savage man,” he states, “will not bend his neck to the yoke which civilized man wears without a murmur; he prefers the most turbulent freedom to the most tranquil subjection.” At its best and most functional, Rousseau believed civilized society exists to organize principles and laws around the natural rights of man within the context of modern civilization.
According to Rousseau, the nexus between a natural existence and the need for civil society is founded in the concept of property. He begins the second half of A Discourse describing the evolution of human existence from savage and free to civil and enslaved with the following: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society.”
Yet Rousseau sees civil society—when laws are meted out evenly and economic protections are in place—in more sanguine terms than other philosophers of the Enlightenment period such as Thomas Paine or later Karl Marx. In fact, A Discourse On Inequality, was intended as a defense of his hometown of Geneva, which he regarded at the time as the best example of progressive civil society and governance in terms of protecting man’s civil liberties. (Rousseau would feel differently after the same government he extols in A Discourse would later ban his work and accuse him of sedition. In this, Rousseau’s experience can be viewed as a cautionary tale regarding the vagaries of political corruption, but one that doesn’t diminish the intellectual scope of his earlier work.)
“Inequality,” Rousseau believed, “derives its force and its growth from the development of our faculties and the progress of the human mind, and finally becomes fixed and legitimate through the institution of property and laws.”
In linking “progress of the human mind” to inequality, Rousseau tacitly acknowledges the inevitability of inequality while arguing the need to protect some semblance of natural rights, lest our humanity be consumed by man’s insidious greed. “A devouring ambition, the burning passion to enlarge one’s relative fortune, not so much from real need as to put oneself ahead of others, inspires in all men a dark propensity to injure one another, a secret jealousy which is all the more dangerous in that it often assumes the mask of benevolence in order to do its deeds in greater safety: in a word, there is competition and rivalry on the one hand, conflicts of interest on the other, and always the hidden desire to gain an advantage at the expense of other people. All these evils are the main effects of property and the inseparable consequences of nascent inequality.”
Rousseau’s pessimism regarding ambition and greed informed his belief that a civil society is one in which our natural impulses are restrained by a just system of laws dispensed in an equitable fashion. This coincides with traditional Aristotelian theory that politics ordains all human sciences and artistic pursuits and therefore, “this end must be the good for man.”
If we are to submit, as Rousseau did, to the idea that civil society exists to contain the human impulse of greed that grows relative to progress, then we must also surrender to the idea that we can never return to a natural, or “savage” state. Put simply, liberty—in its truest sense—can never be achieved within a civil society. The best state it can attain is equity in terms of man’s access to, and representation by, the system.
To this end, we must therefore conclude that a system that restricts access to capital and social mobility regardless of talent—one that places the means of production and extraordinary profit in the hands of a few individuals—can then only be defined as the opposite of civil society. Inequality is a form of social and moral anarchy.
Slaves to Corporate Masters
In the United States, inequality is exacerbated by the extension of our natural and civil rights to corporations, which are organized solely for profit and therefore exist in a state contrary to the good of man. The rise of corporate influence further alienates us from our rights as well as the means of production. Furthermore, we have allowed corporations access to the political process while extending protections to corporations previously reserved for the people. Corporate personhood and the civil and criminal protections it affords, accompanied by the ability to craft legislation and pour unlimited funds into the political process diminishes all civil political theories that revolve around democratic principles.
Some in this country are awakening to the fact that our understanding of capitalism cradled within a democracy bears no resemblance to the world we live in. They have rightfully concluded that America is no longer a democracy, but a corporatocracy. Most of us, however, continue the grand delusion. We prefer to be spoon-fed comfortable ideological anachronisms while debating the symptoms of inequality with little or no relation to the underlying cause.
This is not a criticism; it’s an observation that recognizes that apathy is a direct corollary of inequality. Most of us are too busy and under too much financial pressure to remove ourselves from the cycle of madness. It’s the capitalist way. You snooze, you lose. Thinking is for the weak. Hard work and perseverance is enough. To question our corporate overlords (as Chris Hedges refers to them) is to commit economic suicide and to risk being ostracized from the system. It’s why so many marginalized people come to the defense of the very masters of their subjugation.
Even Rousseau recognized this phenomenon: “The rich man under pressure of necessity conceived in the end the most cunning project that ever entered the human mind: to employ in his favour the very forces of those who attacked him, to make his adversaries his defenders, to inspire them with new maxims and give them new institutions as advantageous to him as natural right was disadvantageous.”
Ultimately, a corporate system ensures that there is no failsafe for penury beyond what the government provides. And if corporations, which by definition require growth at any expense, subsequently seize complete control of government interests, inequality ceases to become a word. It becomes a foregone conclusion.