September 2014 Archives

Is social inequality inherent to human society?

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In an exchange of comments Facebook the other day, somebody said:

"Capitalism doesn't create inequality, if it did there wouldn't be inequality existent in other economic systems which there most certainly is. Inequality is inherent to the human condition. We are not all equally capable or equally industrious so we will not enjoy equal results. There is no system that creates equality because equality doesn't exist. It's a fiction people choose to believe. Believe it if you will, but don't tear down an economic system that provides you with the free time to indulge such fantasies. I'll grant you that capitalism isn't fair, but show me an economic model that produces more.

I'll take freedom over equality any day. Right now, we have neither."

Hereafter I'm using the second person to address the commenter.

Your remarks reflect such a strong attachment to capitalist orthodoxies that it is unlikely I can say anything to convince you, and there are so many misconceptions and fallacies that it's hard to know where to begin. But I should try to make a couple points just for the record.

The fact that "other economic systems" — i.e., other than capitalism — have resulted in social inequality (or were likewise based on it, as with slavery and feudalism) in no way proves that capitalism does not also produce inequality. More to the point, the data and the historical record are overwhelming. Few serious scholars, economists, etc. dispute that the global capitalist order has produced massive social inequality - even capitalists acknowledge this. The world's most powerful, elite government officials, corporate executives and academics gather for their conference in Davos to wring their hands over the global social, economic and environmental crisis resulting from capitalism's excesses. (And rightly so, because such a system not only morally reprehensible, but also unsustainable.). No, the great dispute is over the way forward.

Further, there really is no other economic system of consequence in the modern global economy, other than capitalism, hence nothing to compare except in historical terms. If you look at history, you can say slave-based and feudal societies were unequal, so that must be the human condition. But this too is fallacious; there is no basis in evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, or what have you, to conclude that capitalist, market-based forms of social organization are somehow genetically embedded in homo sapiens.

You seem to be confusing the Enlightenment-inspired ideal of equality, the notion of human and social rights, with the obvious fact of variation from one individual to another. Of course, some people excel more than others at sports, math, language, music — and some are just plain smarter than most of the rest of us. Some are "industrious," some are boneheads and slackers. Is that any excuse for a system in which countless millions toil at slave wages while a handful of billionaires control the world's resources?

Capitalism subordinates social need to private accumulation. Inequality is not just an unfortunate side effect; it's an essential feature. Marx told you a long time ago that under capitalism, wealth tends to concentrate at the top at the expense of the many, and history has proven it. Yes, there have been booms, as in the post-Word War II period, when living standards in the U.S. rose generally —thanks to the fearless struggles of socialist-minded workers who achieved a few significant social reforms. The data is incontrovertible, however, that for the past three decades or so, wages have stagnated even while productivity has increased. Since the financial collapse 2008, of course, matters have gotten much worse for broad swaths of the population, while the tiny layer at the top enjoys a share of the national income not seen since the robber baron days.

These levels of inequality are wholly incompatible with democracy. You correctly state that right now we have neither freedom nor equality. But that is no mere coincidence. With these levels of inequality, social explosion is inevitable. The ruling class cannot permit freedom in the face of such instability; in order to maintain control, there has to be mass surveillance of the population (brought to you by the NSA), ruthless police violence, and an exaggerated threat of terrorism to incite fear.

You say don't tear down an economic system that provides me with the free time to indulge my fantasies. The implication here is that if capitalism has been OK for me, and I enjoy a reasonable level of material comfort, then it's fine, and for those innumerable millions all over the world living in misery, sorry but life is unfair. This view is self-centered and short-sighted. You probably would agree that we should deplore racism even if we are not a victim of it. This is ordinary moral decency. Why is social inequality any different? Because you start from the mistaken assumption that inequality is somehow an immutable characteristic of human social organization, a pessimistic and defeatist worldview with no objective, scientific basis.

The good news is that there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Of course, there are both selfish and altruistic tendencies in human behavior. The solution is to create social structures that make it difficult for the selfish and greedy impulses of a few to screw everyone else. The hope — and there is reason for hope — is that when material want is a thing of the past, the need for extreme greed will diminish and eventually fall away.

A few hundred years ago, slavery and genocide were far more common than they are today. Those who advocated for the abolition of the slave trade were derided as dreamers, or worse. Nowadays, world opinion is virtually unanimous that genocide and slavery are wrong. This is progress, and there are other examples. Human society has progressed from slavocracy to feudalism to bourgeois democracy and capitalism. Fortunately, there is no reason to believe that capitalism is the endpoint of human social evolution. Quite the opposite is true: capitalism gives every indication of coming apart at the seams. What will follow? That is the big question. My view is that world socialist revolution is the only way forward. The resources of the planet must be brought under the democratic control of the working class — meaning the overwhelming majority of humankind — and utilized rationally to meet the needs of people and the environment, rather than pillaged for the benefit of a tiny minority at the top. If you think this is an unrealistic goal, consider the alternative.

Top ten books -- because you asked for it

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People on Facebook have inviting their FB friends to list the top ten books that have had the greatest impact in our lives. Some people start naming big-name classics like Cervantes, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Joyce. This strikes me as rather uninteresting, but maybe I am just envious because I am not well-read in the classics. Others are surprisingly candid -- or perhaps, naive -- in listing some real crap, self-help junk, various pop-schlock titles. I guess I am somewhere between an intellectual and a moron; ignorant, but a snob.

Problem is, I can't bring myself to do this top ten list. I have been living 50+ years and reading for so long that I no longer remember very well the books that had a great impact at the time I read them, even where their impact was indeed great. The more recently read books tend to displace the old ones. So most of my top ten would be things from the past five years or so. All right, let's give it a try anyway:

(1) Nietszche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Made a huge impression on me when I was 16 years old, so it has to stay on the list. I may not have understood it deeply, but nevertheless.

(2) Juliet Schor - The Overworked American. I read it in the early 1990s and keep remembering it time and again, so it makes the list.

(3) Duke and Gross - America's Longest War. Greatly informed my thinking about the so-called War on Drugs, which I have been observing from the perspective of a judiciary employee for the past 20 years.

(4) Mathieu Ricard - Happiness. Picked up a copy while looking for something to do at an airport in December 2006. The timing was perfect. It actually changed my life for the better, permanently.

(5) Michael Pollan - The Omnivore's Dilemma. I was already leaning in the direction of a vegetarian diet, but after reading this, I changed the way I eat.

(6) The Gateless Barrier, a/k/a The Gateless Gate. I was a student at a zendo for about two and a half years, studying with a teacher. Maybe some of it was bullshit. But we went through this koan collection, and I did a lot of sitting (still do hit the mat every day). I know the exercise had a profound effect.

(7) Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse 5. I never read it until recently -- a couple years ago. I think it's one of the finest novels I have ever read.

(8) Haruki Murakami - 1Q84. It isn't just this novel, but that it introduced me to this writer and I went on to read several more of his books. You talk about a work of fiction grabbing you in the first few pages. This one grabbed me and did not let go for the next 900+ pages. I don't know what it is about this guy. He sees the world in a weird way that is peculiar to him, and yet... universal? "Remember: there is always only one reality." Really?

(9) Don deLillo - Underground. The one that begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants game in 1959. Man, that was one fucking good book.

(10) Terry Eagleton - Why Marx Was Right. My father and I have a decades-long history of talking about politics, about which we generally agree, although I have moved to the left of him. He lent me this book, and it had an enormous impact. Hitherto, I had often said I would consider myself a socialist but for the fact that I had not read any Marx or Engels, much less Lenin or Trotsky. I went on to establish contact with some real, practicing Marxists. In a conversation with one of them -- a particularly feisty and erudite old bastard whom I'll call Fred -- he scoffed at Why Marx Was Right, saying Eagleton was a "Catholic Marxist," i.e., something of a joke. But this book got me started reading some of the works of Trotsky, Lenin, Marx, Engels, and finding out for myself what the political theory is. Combining that with readings of countless contemporary articles that use Marxist methods of analysis, attending some lectures, and observing world events unfold through my own eyes, my political education has advanced greatly in the past two or three years. I am a Marxist-Trotskyist. In this capitalist culture, much of what my generation has been taught about history and socialism is utter nonsense. I have developed a reasonable level of confidence in my ability to sort out the truth from the bullshit.

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