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

Reluctant Revolution

Capitalism has only succeeded to the extent it has because it inherently recognizes the most fundamental quality of our nature: greed. In this, capitalism is the most authentic of “isms”; yet even it is not immune to empire-crushing corruption.

The very economic system that fuels democracy in America has provided me with financial gain beyond my ability while simultaneously dispiriting me to such an extent that I cannot help but quietly wish for its demise. The greater the evidence of corporate malfeasance and political ineptitude, the greater my admiration for the nascent revolution taking place on Wall Street where thousands of disenfranchised Americans approach a fortnight of protest against capitalism gone awry.

Mind you, I’m far from what you would call an anarchist. Quite the opposite in fact. I’m an intransigent conformist who ought to know better, given all that I know. But these days I’m finding most “ists,” “isms” and “ologies” increasingly uncomfortable to wear out in public as humans have the unique ability to deform even the purest of ideological intentions. Any organized system that seeks to harness the natural tendencies of humankind is destined to eventually suffocate under the weight of its own construct.

Capitalism has only succeeded to the extent it has because it inherently recognizes the most fundamental quality of our nature: greed. In this, capitalism is the most authentic of “isms”; yet even it is not immune to empire-crushing corruption.

Capitalism can only thrive within a democracy that cradles, coddles and spoon-feeds free enterprise with regulations that govern conduct. It’s this necessity that is lost upon my libertarian friends who seek to abolish anything that would impede free markets and entrepreneurs as though successful Americans weren’t aided by laws that protect their ideas and property, infrastructure that allows the passage of trade and trustworthy currency with which to transact. The phantasmic and magical world of radical Ayn Rand sycophants flourishes in storybooks but founders in history books.

Likewise, capitalism has been the engine of democracy, allowing the formation of a legal structure that, while imperfect, is still the envy of the world. So, too, has it funded a government of disproportionate militaristic might that American hegemony is unrivaled to the point that any chink in our armor can and will be strictly by our own hand. In this, the Project for a New American Century has already been fully realized. Read into this what you will.

So what of the fearless cadre of would-be revolutionaries who are raging against the machine in the belly of the beast on Wall Street? What is to become of us if they are somehow successful in forcing us to look in the mirror and utter aloud treasonous words that would question our collective morality and therefore our patriotism? Imagining the almost unthinkable collapse of capitalism inevitably brings to life the words of Mao Tse-Tung, who pondered this fate and concluded that “humanity left to its own does not necessarily re-establish capitalism, but it does re-establish inequality.”

History is rife with philosopher-kings who have cautioned against unadulterated capitalism and promulgated the need for the equal and opposite influence of regulations and morality to counter the natural forces within us.

It’s why I struggle to wholly align myself with the notion that all we have known must turn to dust if we are to rebuild a robust and equitable, yet competitive future for America. Though as much as I despise the oil oligarchs, banking miscreants and neocons who have hijacked our nation, I am not yet ready to light a match, gather the animals two-by-two and select a few beautiful people with whom to breed and repopulate the planet.

I am, however, as in touch with my inner-Tyler Durden and Chris Hedges as I am with Henry Thoreau and H.L. Mencken. The former inform my understanding that the democracy we live in today is perverted beyond recognition while the latter offer a healthy mix of civil disobedience and cynicism. The result is perhaps a quixotic optimism, a belief that we can still exact a proper balance between economy, ecology and morality. Because if I am to accept that the propagation of inequity is in our DNA, then why start over? Or as my friend Dorian would say: Completely abandoning our version of democracy and capitalism in order to discover our inherent morality is like “burning down the barn to get to the nails.”

Therefore, I continue trying to define what exactly is fundamentally wrong with our economic system today. I offer the following points for your consideration. They are strictly economic measures that would restore balance and sanity to the markets, not some high-minded, socially conscious dreams for a peaceful Utopia. But make no mistake: Absent some or all of the reforms listed here, I truly believe the revolution is nigh.