A Renewed Discourse on Inequality: Part II

It’s time to embark on a new discussion on the “redistribution of wealth.” It begins with the reclamation of this battered phrase in a way that tunes our collective ear to the sound of justice.

marx-eng6Distributing Wealth
Picking up on Part 1 of A Renewed Discourse on Inequalityan attempt to examine Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s original publication in 1755 through a modern lens—it is logical to extend our view to the theories offered by Karl Marx, another controversial Enlightenment theorist. (There are those who would take issue with this characterization.) At the outset, however, one should distinguish between equality as a measurement of how a society rewards individual behavior and accomplishment from the concept of egalitarianism. An egalitarian society is entirely too utopian (or dystopian depending upon the measurement) of a concept because it fails to recognize inherent differences in human beings. To strive toward an egalitarian society is to presume that every person enjoys a similar level of wants and needs.

Unfortunately, our concept of equality is too often reduced to “redistribution of wealth,” a familiar refrain uttered by talking heads in the media. This is a poisoned narrative lazily ascribed to Marx whose philosophy is an anathema in western circles. Mind you, this impression is not entirely without support. The ideological expressions of Marxist economic theory have failed in practice due in large part to the corrupt legacy of the twentieth century communist states. But there are aspects of Marxism still relevant today with respect to inequality, particularly as they relate to war and capitalism.

Marx viewed both nation states and capitalism as destructive forces that require the suppression of labor and forcible acquisition of land and natural resources. Marx tended to steer away from discussions of morality and justice, preferring a clinical analysis of the clash between market forces under capitalism and the natural tendencies of human behavior. Nevertheless, Marx is viewed as the anti-hero to capitalism and is therefore considered an affront to those who cannot discern the difference between capitalism and democracy. (Another subject entirely.)

That’s not to say Marx had no natural predispositions – he made his feelings more evident to his close associates and in moments of unscripted candor. But Marx should be viewed first and foremost a social scientist who sought to prove that capitalism, by design, would inevitably advance communism once capitalism reached the maximum exploitive potential of both labor and natural resources.

Marx was correct in predicting that unfettered capitalism advances inequality and suppresses the working classes. However, he was wrong that communism was the logical evolution of capitalism. To this, it was Mao Tse-Tung who offered a more insightful prognostication on the decay of capitalism saying, “humanity left to its own does not necessarily re-establish capitalism, but it does re-establish inequality.”

Regarding the aggression of capitalist nation states, Marx speculates that once a capitalist nation had reached the inevitable limits of human and environmental capacity it would be forced to seek these means of production elsewhere, and attain them by force when necessary. This is the part of Marxist theory that has been born out conclusively by the United States. To this end, Marx believed that ending war was possible if workers of the world were united beyond the artificial boundaries and political constructs of nationhood. In theory, workers who controlled the means of production would naturally supersede the economic interests of the bourgeoisie and imperial proclivities of governments.

Marxist theory holds that the animus of nations does not exist in the fraternity of the working class and that any act of aggression would be considered a form of cannibalism and therefore antagonistic to our humanity. Likewise, our humanity is only tenable when the working class is closely linked with production.

When one considers the age during which Marx was most prolific, his logic is more enticing than it is today. Science and reason had shattered the intellectual prism that confined mankind during the middle ages. Empires had crumbled and the church was losing its grip on politics. And while technology had advanced enough for Marx to envisage the terrible consequences of an industrial society, the industrial revolution was in its nascent stages.

What was evident to Marx were the conditions created by capitalism. For the destitute and working classes, the boom and bust cycles of the western economies were apocalyptic. Even those who briefly climbed into the middle class would be frequently thrust back into penury due to the need of the bourgeoisie to maintain wealth during the bust cycles. Ultimately, Marx’s theories would be perverted by communism and the boom and bust cycles under capitalism would eventually be mitigated. Typically, however, these cycles were tamed by policies more associated with socialism than capitalism, particularly in the United States, during the first half of the twentieth century. This nuance has been lost to time as the conservative American movement today seeks to destroy the last vestiges of the temperate regulations instituted with fairly strict accordance to capitalist theory. Which is to say, capitalism is not mutually exclusive of regulation.

Lastly, Marx couldn’t have foreseen the rise of nationalism at the turn of the twentieth century, which would render the concept of a unified global proletariat virtually impossible. Militant Jingoism and xenophobia, manufactured tools of the ruling class, would supplant the possibility of universal solidarity among workers. Continuity can be found, however, in Marx’s theory of alienation.

The underlying precept of Marx’s theory suggests that mechanization and industry would alienate the worker from the process and therefore strip any meaning from his work. As a consequence, labor would become despondent and therefore further detached from its own humanity. The capitalist, forced to pursue greater profits, would continue to degrade working conditions through increased mechanization thereby contributing to the downward spiral of human existence.

Examining this subtext adds layers to the phrase “redistribution of wealth,” a phrase that has been purposely bastardized and cheapened by conservative propaganda.

It’s time to embark on a new discussion that takes into account the shortcomings of Marxist theory but includes the best part of its intent. It begins with the reclamation of this battered phrase in a way that tunes our collective ear to the sound of justice. An economic system that functions properly while preserving our morality does not rely on redistributing wealth; rather, it relies on creating equitable access to wealth. An economic system based upon increasing alienation is doomed to failure, particularly when the political system supports such a divide. A system that rewards work and industriousness with participation in both the political and economic process is sustainable.

When food is used for fuel while children are “food insecure” is not simply immoral, it’s bad economic planning. When rampant speculation causes spikes in the price of food and fuel, it punishes the lower economic classes disproportionately. “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciating,” writes Steinbeck at the end of his Depression era novel, The Grapes of Wrath. “There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates­—died of malnutrition—because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.”


Jed Morey is the author of The Great American Disconnect: Seven Fundamental Threats to our Democracy
Image: Portrait of Marx and Engels. Source: Marxists.org

Author: Jed Morey

Jed Morey is the publisher of the Long Island Press, LI's Cultural Arts and Investigative News Journal. The Press has a monthly circulation of 100,000, and www.longislandpress.com, welcomes more than 500,000 unique visitors every month. He serves on the board of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center in Nassau County, as well as the President's Council of Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Long Island. In addition to the contributions on this blog, Morey authors a column for the Long Island Press titled "Off The Reservation" and is a staunch advocate for Indian rights. The column was voted Best Column in New York by the NY Press Association in 2010 and third overall in the nation among alternative publications by the Association of Alternative Weeklies in 2012. Morey lives in Glen Cove with his wife, Eden White, and their two daughters.

6 thoughts on “A Renewed Discourse on Inequality: Part II”

  1. I’m curious about what your first reactions were to these texts (as an undergrad, I’m assuming) when you leaned, ahem, right. You political evolution is interesting – and is probably most apparent in Marx appreciation mode. I responded to it right away – I love the political language: we have nothing to lose but our chains, etc. I’m thinking your reaction was different.

  2. I read precious little in college. Unless you count beer labels. That probably accounts for my paper thin knowledge of these great texts during my more, ahem, conservative periods. Looking back I was always socially progressive. But I went to such a liberal college that I enjoyed being contrarian. As an adult I approach these subjects in deadly serious ways because to live with eyes wide open and to be in our profession means that we have an obligation to think critically about issues that impact the world around us. Forcing myself to revisit classical theories is a way of rejecting my preconceived notions of politics whenever possible in an effort to highlight our current work in a meaningful way. Our nation’s discourse is so weak and cheap due to the corporate influence on media and our inability to discern fact from pontification.

  3. Marx, whatever the finer points of his broader political philosophies as coherently explicated here, is terminally discredited by association. Not much more than a flash point, Marx remains a favored bogeyman of Red Scare mongers and, thus, a third rail for most progressives. Mindful of the monstrosity that was 20th Century Communism, how would Marx overcome prevailing inequality and take equal opportunity beyond nostrum? And how would Rousseau & Marx morph to take us to the Promised Land through the Balkanized mutation that is our political system.

  4. That is the question, isn’t it? What’s the purpose of weighing their ideas today if we cannot put them into their proper context? The two factors that (to the best of my limited knowledge) neither man, nor many of their contemporaries, could have accounted for were the rise of fervent nationalism leading into the first Great War and the destruction of the ecosystem. I suspect Rousseau would be horrified and Marx would feel vindicated today. As things continue to deteriorate, I rather suspect that Nietzsche’s discussion of nihilism will find its way back into prominence. The only writer today that I have found capable and intelligent enough to rise to the likes of these thinkers is Chris Hedges. The more I read, the more impressed (and terrified) I am by his analyses. I ask you – since I borrowed the phrase from you – can the system be rehabilitated or shall we commence the barn burning to get to the nails?

  5. The barn burning is well along, my friend, and its impact profound. Many don’t put any faith in the system and even less in those who vie to be a part of it. It is a system, nonetheless, albeit a labyrinthine one. As we know, there are clever players, like the Kochs, who game the system even as they unleash their unwitting stalking horses, so-called Americans for {Koch} Prosperity to discredit. And so we have this crisis of confidence borne of the seeds of chaos (agent provocateurs being a time-worn cat’s paw for this element).

    My high school senior, who is running for U.S. president in a mock social studies election, showed me a video of a debate. I was struck how tepid all positions were on gun control, including that articulated by my son. It underscored to what degree the monomaniacal Second Amenders hold this issue hostage. Which is why I saw a glimmer of an opening in the proposal of the Smart Tech Foundation which was formed to incentivize, to the tune of$1M, free-market solutions to firearm safety. One conceivable option for guns would be a fingerprint sensor that would activate only for the owner. I cut my teeth some 40yrs ago in the discipline of what is now called biometrics, and so I both anticipated then noted this particular development. Given the fanatic resistance to any form of gun sanity, this may not have legs. But it does ride the free market and presents strategic advantages. It’s an example of a flea flicker when your ground game is going nowhere against an overwhelming defensive front.

  6. I respectfully disagree with your premise.

    Greed is indeed good. The problem, is that we are not all able to “pursue happiness.” That is the basic difference between capitalism and corporatism.

    Consider how the business owner class and the worker class should interact together. If market forces were allowed to dictate the relationship, each party would singularly pursue their “selfish interests” in their dealings. In other words, allow the laws of supply and demand to determine the price of goods and wages for production so workers can buy the products. If owners want to their products produced, they will have to offer a wage commensurate to compel workers to work for them. If workers want money to buy products, they must earn their means to do so. Symbiosis.

    To put it another way, imagine you are a parent of two children. Your (hypothetical) kids must learn to deal with each other. If, however, you always intervene with one over the other, what incentive is there for your children to come together? None. No symbiosis.

    This is the nature of corporatism. The government at all levels caters to the wealthy. We the People have no access to the police, legislative bodies, or the courts. The market forces that the Koch Brothers and other faux libertarians advocate for are nullified.

    Without balance this symbiosis there will continue to be extreme income inequality.

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