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

9/11 Call and Response

After swimming in 9/11 coverage and exploring parts of my psyche previously left untouched, I am admittedly incapable of tendering something meaningful and new. So I submit to you, instead, excerpts of the many responses I received:

Last week I extended a challenge to the youth of America by issuing a blanket indictment of the Baby Boomer, Gen-X and Gen-Y populations and our collective response to the Sept. 11 attacks. The column elicited a strong, direct response from several readers and inspired a spirited dialogue among a handful of friends. Some of the retorts were strident, others didactic. All were thoughtful, challenging and from a raw and profound place.

After swimming in 9/11 coverage and exploring parts of my psyche previously left untouched, I am admittedly incapable of tendering something meaningful and new. So I submit to you, instead, excerpts of the many responses I received:

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• For several years, I’ve been listening carefully to stories of previous generations and have learned a lot of lessons.  I’m ready to take all these good seeds that people have planted all over the world—past and present—and nurture them to create a better world.

• Unfortunately, movement building has not happened for my generation and people do not think it will ever happen. The apathy is quite pathetic. I have become highly cynical myself and have just a little hope for a new type of movement through social media and non-traditional organizing. The more I engage in politics, the more I realize that it is not left-right or conservative-progressive. Rather, it’s top- down.

• Our generation is torn right now between indulging in some well-deserved self-pity as individuals, and feeling guilty for wanting to always have things our way. Not an easy line to walk.  But we do the best we can.

• I’m back from the ’60s/’70s to disabuse Jed of a few myths. In my twenties, when I used to hear the expression, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” I’d retort, “Hey, I don’t trust anyone under 30,” because I knew how self-involved a goodly number of my contemporaries were.  Most would rather “turn on and drop out,” and go to Woodstock rather than march on Washington, D.C., to protest the war.  Many didn’t know where Vietnam was until their low draft number potentially put their asses on the line. How many lamented the deaths of millions of Indochinese or asked the question whether a rice farmer would rather live under Communism or a steady rain of napalm?

• America’s real troubles seem to be shrouded from public inspection, and most people would not be able to comprehend the levels of corruption and manipulation that are occurring behind the scenes when all we really hear about are the results that are self evident.

• This is a potentially dangerous endeavor to expose some of these people or the systems they hide behind in order to steal America blind. I wish you luck and encourage you to be smart about who and what you expose.

• I think your article is as radical as it can be with your signature on it (for now). Why have Gen-X and Gen-Y let this happen? It should be called GEN-ME. How many 25-year-olds were living at home in the ’60s and early ’70s? It is frustrating that in the Viral Age we cannot motivate a youth-based revolutionist movement because of the lack of a strong common cause.  The answer is: you need to create one.  It must be specific. It must be easy to understand. It must be NOW.

• Capitalism did not cause the current economic calamity because America no longer practices capitalism. Rather, America has devolved into a fascist state as defined by government control over or partnership with business. There is not a business that is somehow devoid of government interference. In fact, today, all Americans are but subjects of the government. Government takes the fruits of our labor and tells us what we can eat, smoke or inject into our bodies. Government effectively runs our lives.

• It’s easy to criticize, condemn and complain! Where are the concrete answers? You just can’t throw out there “it’s time to revolt” rhetoric anymore! How about alternative political candidates creating a new “common sense” political party, or boycotting Exxon, etc.? I felt the article was typical of the media: well-written hype about what’s wrong and almost no answers about what to do.

• We were not all high at Woodstock, and a very small minority benefited from the 1980s boom years. Most of our generation had to work very hard and still did not achieve what our parents had acquired when a loaf of bread was 38 cents. Perhaps, you should take a closer look at the collective consciousness of our society, and then you would discover that our malaise is not due to any single group, but to a total pandemic human acquiescence and rejection of the conscientious values of the one and only generation that had the gumption to fight the status quo.

• My heart breaks for all of those whose lives were directly impacted by that awful event of 9/11. But I also know that it was the launching pad for a whole series of bad decisions on so many levels in this country. Decisions that, a full decade later, do not seem to be reversible. I don’t know. It’s just so sad and so unbelievably distressing. I hope that America wakes up. Because you are right: the vast majority of the American citizenry are now locked in a somnambulistic torpor that is simply mesmerizing in its complexity and deadening in its completeness.

• Baby boomers didn’t become hippies and free loving because of the Vietnam War and racism. It was because they didn’t have to do anything to survive. It was handed to them by their parents who did all the sacrificing before them, so they wouldn’t have to. They gave them the ability and the time to go roam for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll and have no responsibility. Baby boomers didn’t get amnesia later in life; they grew up.

“This is a potentially dangerous endeavor to expose some of these people or the systems they hide behind in order to steal America blind. I wish you luck and encourage you to be smart about who and what you expose.”

The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation.

The sight of so many conservative Christian presidential candidates attempting to out-holy one another during the GOP debate this past weekend was curious but not without precedent. The role of Christianity in the American political system predates the formation of the nation itself, with the more fundamentalist aspects playing a larger part during difficult economic periods. While it can be said that religion informed the political ideologies of the men who established the framework of our nation, fundamentalism was largely relegated to the fringes of American politics until the first part of the 20th Century.

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation and help to explain—as history often does—why right-wing religious views are influencing the social, political and economic platforms of the GOP candidates.

Prior to the Great Depression, the evangelical set were more like babbling mystics than an influential political force. Think Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. The mainstream transformation came when successful, white Christian men who accumulated and maintained great wealth during this time were looking for absolution of the guilt they felt while their fellow countrymen fell upon hard times. Enter Abraham “Abram” Vereide, the man perhaps most responsible for the modern fundamentalist Christian movement in America.

Vereide was able to coalesce the successful strategies and teachings of other soul-surgeons and evangelists of his era. By rationalizing the financial success of his followers as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s will, he was able to mold a new Christian doctrine that recognized wealth, power and influence as deliberate and divine endowments. As it turned out, mass absolution and wider acceptance came in the form of Jesus Christ as seen through the lens of Bruce Barton’s bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows.

Barton, who is more enduringly known as the second “B” in the ad agency BBD&O, which exists even today, published The Man Nobody Knows in 1925. It was an instant phenomenon. Barton’s Jesus was the ultimate winner, the consummate salesman. The book was a pocket guide to winning with Christ that helped extricate Christianity from purely religious constraints and bring it to a wider audience as only a professional adman could.

By 1933, when the nation was in the throes of the Depression, Vereide’s organization began to take shape. The political outgrowth of his movement was formalized in Seattle with the creation of the New Order of Cincinnatus. The parallels between the New Order and the Tea Party today are undeniable. Like the Tea Party, the New Order cherished free market ideals and conservative morality, and organized against taxes and big government.

Vereide’s followers heartily rebuked then-President Herbert Hoover for bailing out Wall Street bankers whom many Americans believed to be responsible for the stock market crash of 1929 just as the Tea Party chastised the Bush administration for doing the same with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Both groups found their footing, however, railing against the subsequent administrations for battling economic downturns with public works projects, specifically FDR’s New Deal and Obama’s Stimulus Package. Likewise they share similar views regarding social welfare programs, and were able to elect candidates to battle these reforms. Even the great adman Bruce Barton went on to secure a seat in Congress under the slogan “Repeal a Law a Day.”

Vereide’s organization lives on today through the efforts of a rather enigmatic figure named Douglas Coe, who took over the group upon Vereide’s death in 1969 and transformed it into one of the most influential and highly secretive organizations in the modern era. The only public recognition of the group known today simply as “The Family” is the National Prayer Breakfast held every year in Washington, where political and business leaders assemble to pay tribute to Douglas Coe’s cabal. Most of what transpired beyond the breakfast remained a complete mystery until Jeff Sharlet, a reporter and expert on religion, stumbled upon Coe’s secret world, which he unraveled in his 2008 book titled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and his 2010 follow-up C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

Sharlet painstakingly details the roots of fundamentalism in America and illustrates the many ways in which The Family’s perversion of Christianity as a doctrine of power has transformed modern political life in America. The ultimate testament to the work of The Family is fully on display in the platforms of candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—not to mention the political juggernaut waiting in the wings that is Sarah Palin. But before Bachmann there was Frank Buchman, founder of “Moral Re-Armament,” whose closeted reputation was more Marcus Bachmann than Michele, if you catch my drift. Before Palin there was Arthur Langlie, figurehead of the New Order of Cincinnatus, and before Perry there was Bruce Barton.

When placed in historical context, the great revelation of the Tea Party is that there’s nothing particularly innovative about it. As young as our nation is, we’re now old enough that everything old is new again. In Vereide’s time Vladimir Lenin was the Osama bin Laden of the day and Communism was today’s Islam. The rise of the German economy and the grand display of Nazism in the 1936 Olympics openly mocked America’s failing economy in the midst of the Depression just as China’s present-day ascension and the grand pageantry of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing taunted Americans during the Great Recession. And just as FDR became the bête noire of the New Order of Cincinnatus, so too is Barack Obama to the conservative, evangelical wing of the Tea Party.

What I find interesting about the parallels between our past and present circumstances is that there is room for both sides of the debate to find comfort. Christian fundamentalists can take heart in the notion that their wing of the Tea Party is an idea whose time has finally come while opponents of radical evangelicals may take solace in the fact that fundamentalism ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the economy. It’s simply a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a lack thereof.