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The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality - Part 1

by NBBooks Sun Jan 8th, 2023 at 08:08:00 PM EST

It has been over ten years since I frequented this blog. Way back then, I followed Jerome a Paris here from DailyKos, and always respected this blog for the highly intelligent comments of its readers, not to mention the posts by its contributors. I hope you will forgive my long absence, though I did visit here occasionally-the past year, it feels to me, ever more frequently.

I have been burdened with the conjoined thoughts that all the reigning ideologies have failed: liberalism, socialism, and most spectacularly, capitalism, and the only real alternative is to restore the ideology of civic republicanism. I am not alone in this -- there are a few scholars who have done important work. I initiate my return by presenting one of them. - Tony Wikrent

Excerpts from Michael J. Thompson, The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America, New York, NY, Columbia University Press, 2007.


...the economic egalitarian tradition that I will present here is so crucial because it is at the heart of the American republican project itself. The American idea of a democratic republic had always been premised on an antipathy toward unequal divisions of property because early American thinkers saw in those unequal shares of economic power echoes of what had been historically overturned: a sociopolitical order of rank and privilege; a static society that sought to crystallize power relationships and hierarchical economic and social relations characterized by corruption and patronage; in short, a feudal order where the exercise of power was arbitrary and the prospect of domination pervaded everyday life. The reason I trace the historical development and inevitable dissolution of the discourse on economic inequality in American political thought is to show that the American republican project was, in fact, deeply tied to the issues of economic inequality as a reaction to feudal social relations. Any political community that suffers from severe imbalances between rich and poor is in danger of losing its democratic character....

...economic inequality must also be seen in political terms: in the ways that it creates new forms of hierarchy, social fragmentation, and constraints on individual liberty. American political thought was, at least through the beginings of the twentieth century, a mixture of liberal and republican themes. Politically, the emphasis on individual liberty was matched by a concern for a community of equals. Republican themes emphasized the need for the absence of domination, which was itself understood as the ability of one person to arbitrarily interfere with another. This was a more robust understanding of freedom than liberalism offers since it was sensitive to the ways that institutions bound working people to conditions that eroded their substantive freedom and rights....

What writers and thinkers within the economic egalitarian tradition sought to emphasize was the way that the growing disparity of economic power would form the groundwork for distortions in political and social power. New forms of economic life would foster not individual liberty and independence but a new form of economic dependence of working people on others (namely owners) and the erosion of social and political freedom. At the root of the American economic egalitarian tradition is the notion that economic divisions lead inexorably to political and social inequalities of power; that the essence of any real sense of political equality could only be guaranteed by a sensibly equal distribution of property and wealth. This meant that political and economic life were in fact inseparable and that social power was a function not only of political power but of the ways that individuals had the power over their own economic life and the ability to direct their lives independently of others--whether political tyrants or factory owners. Historically, Americans were reacting against the memories and vestiges of aristocracy and feudalism.
This formed part of a political-historical consciousness that militated against class divisions. The fear of the aristocracy and the destruction of America's republican experiment were therefore at the core of early American ideas about inequality. The political moment was therefore always explicit, and this is something that has been lost in contemporary American attitudes toward economic power and class inequality....

Chapter I. The Critique of Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought: The Continuity of an Idea

...The critique of economic inequality seems to be a fairly consistent theme because it was always bound to the discussion of how to govern with justice, or at least with some degree of order. This motivation is interesting because, unlike the approach of many scholars to the question of the emergence of equality as a political ideal in Western political thought, it indicates that economic inequality was not critiqued simply because it was seen as morally wrong but because it was viewed as a concrete social ill that would, more often than not, erode social cohesion, create political fragmentation, and even, in its worst instances, lead to the dissolution of the political community itself....

...The critics of inequality that make up the American egalitarian tradition interpreted economic inequality as not only pernicious in and of itself but also as a threat to social and individual freedom. The overwhelming majority of these critics saw that the political institutions of America's republican democracy could only function once there was a relative absence of unequal wealth....

[Plato argued that] Justice is not to be found in good acts or in the mere existence of "just" laws and virtuous rulers. More important, justice is found in the arrangement of social structure itself; it is manifest in the specific way that the polis is organized, with all having equal shares because each class depends on the activities of all others. The promotion of economic equality is therefore part and parcel of the project of building a just city. Plato's Republic therefore privileges economic equality in the light of a broader political and moral concern for social solidarity and the desire to prevent the fragmentation of community and the dissolution of political society itself. Economic inequality is not viewed simply in the light of justice or fairness, it is also, and to a certain extent more essentially, seen as crucial to the very survival of the political community itself.

The general view of social harmony and wholeness informs the classical republican idea, and it is central in understanding the basic foundations for the discourse of economic equality in Western thought. Plato, as well as other Greek thinkers of the period, saw that the institution of the polis was something that was naturally formed not something that existed naturally. The difference is crucial: individuals come together for mutual support and to take advantage of the different abilities that each individual, family, or class has to offer. Society flourishes only when it is efficient and each person is able to dedicate himself to his task and therefore enrich the totality of the polis -- individual self-sufficiency is dependent on the maintenance of the social totality....

[Cicero wrote] "When one person or a few stand out from the crowd as richer and more prosperous, then, as a result of their haughty and arrogant behavior, there arises [a government of one or a few], the cowardly and weak giving way and bowing down to the pride of wealth."  Cicero is able to point to the deformation of republican government under the influence of wealth and the imbalance it creates. It is not that he advocates the redistribution of property by the state, but rather that laws are to be made so that the possession of wealth remains a private affair, never becoming a public one. Laws are therefore to be crafted to treat all citizens equally, irrespective of their economic status: "Since law is the bond which unites the civic association, and the justice enforced by law is the same for all [ius autem legis aequale], by what justice can an association of citizens be held together when there is no equality among citizens? For if we cannot agree to equalize men's wealth, and equality of innate ability is impossible, the legal rights of those who are citizens of the same commonwealth ought to be equal. For what is a state except an association or partnership in justice?"

....The broader aim of political life for classical thinkers, of whom Cicero is only one of the more articulate exemplars, was the protection of the public good in the face of private interests so that citizens could live a life bereft of subjugation and domination and free from the interference of others. They saw economic inequality not simply as an empirical reality produced naturally by competing interests but more likely as a result of moral corruption itself. Plato refers to it as philochrematon, the "love of wealth"; both Plato and Aristotle also use the term chrematistikon, or the "art of wealth seeking"; and Cicero refers to the "worshiping of wealth" (admiratione divitiarum). But irrespective of the name, they saw the ascendance of economic life over politic life as fatal to republican government....

[Montesquieu wrote] "Though real equality be the very soul of a democracy, it is so difficult to establish, that an extreme exactness in this respect would not be always convenient. Sufficient is it to establish a census, which shall reduce or fix the differences to a certain point: it is afterwards the business of particular laws to level, as it were, the inequalities, by the duties laid upon the rich, and by the ease afforded to the poor. It is moderate riches alone that can give or suffer this sort of compensation; for as to men of overgrown estates, everything which does not contribute to advance their power and honor is considered by them as an injury...." [emphasis by TW]

....The coherence of this tradition lies not in the prescriptions that these various thinkers articulated to diminish economic inequalities but in the way that they all conceptualized inequalities of wealth and property as diminishing the strength of the political community and any kind of democratic or republican political culture. All believed that political life would be threatened by the unequal power relations that the concentration of economic power--wealth and property--created. The discourse also shows a growing response to the emergence and dominance of a market economy, and it shows a consistent concern with the welfare of the public, of society as a whole over its minority interests. Even those thinkers--such as Aristotle, Smith, and Hegel--who argue that there is a "natural inequality" between human beings do not argue that inequalities within society should persist if they lead to the dominance of one class. Indeed, what is consistently argued by both radical and moderate alike is that markets create inequalities that ought not to be tolerated and that require the intervention of society or the state....

Chapter 2 The Liberal Republic and the Emergence of Capitalism: The Political Theories of Optimism & Radicalism

Thinkers such as Harrington, in his Commonwealth of Oceana, and Walter Moyle, in his Essay on the Roman Government, saw property and power as united. Liberals, too, were aware of this, and they sought--as did the English radicals before them--to eradicate forms of privilege inherent in feudal society. For liberals, once there was equality of opportunity--equal access for all to work, produce, trade, buy and sell--then the hierarchies of the past would melt away.

As capitalism matured, industrialism began to surge, and wage labor displaced guild and farm labor, the republican themes begin to erode; liberal ideas become flattened into an equality of opportunity and an ethic of competition.

Although not all republicans shared the same skepticism of the market, they mostly agreed that political life ought not be subservient to economic life. Markets may be mechanisms for the free exchange of individuals, but they were also based on narrow self-interest, as opposed to political life and its emphasis on the preservation of commonwealth.

The fear of the poor was matched by the fear of an emerging aristocracy. Adams recognized that an economic aristocracy could emerge from even the humble classes that made up the small-scale economy in early America, dominated as it was by merchants and small manufacturers. He saw that inequality would increase in the United States as long as a too rapid course was followed toward modern industry and the production of national wealth; the result would be social divisions, political strife, and, most important for Adams, the corruption of republican virtue....

Adams's political philosophy was simple enough. Since all men by their nature seek power, economic inequality needed to be kept in check, for it would result in political tyranny or domination by one class in one form or another. The bicameral system could therefore provide a check on these opposing interests and defend the republic. But the real problem was clear: economic inequality and the divisions it produced were permanent features of a commercial society, and the idea of reclaiming the moral ideal of a political community founded on republican virtue was nothing more than illusory. Ideally, property should be widespread to prevent the emergence of an aristocracy, but the complexity of the market system presented thinkers like Adams--and others who agreed broadly with the same
idea--with the difficult reality of controlling the effects of inequality rather than eliminating the problem itself or the mechanisms that caused it.
The fear of a return to aristocracy in the early republic was widespread, and it was commonly thought that this would result from an increase in economic inequality. Inequality arising from economic divisions was a threat to the democratic experiment, and Adams feared that it would produce the very things that the American republic was defined against: tyranny, demagoguery, and aristocracy. Adams was hardly alone on this front. The Pennsylvanian George Logan, writing in 1792, commented on the corporate charter that was given to Alexander Hamilton's Society for Useful Manufactures by asking, "will it not, by fostering an inequality of fortune, provide the destruction of the equality of rights, and tend strongly to aristocracy?"" James Lyon, the editor of the National Magazine, wrote in 1799, 'Any person who pays attention to the subject, will discover that the aristocratic faction, which is growing into influence in the United States, is built by various classes of citizens, as opposite in their interests, as their designs are to honesty, or light to darkness."33

But despite this argument, which embraced economic inequality; it is undeniable that for many thinkers in the early American republic, economic inequality posed a threat to the idea of a morally cohesive and politically ordered republic and also threatened the kind of freedom that they envisioned for that republic. Like the Greeks well over two thousand years earlier, they called into question the simultaneous existence of economic inequality and democracy. Economic divisions were the source of political divisions and, ultimately, the seed from which the tyranny and the end of republican government would grow. This was seen as one of the most important problems facing the social, economic, and political maturation of the nation. The solution was not to be found in economic policy but rather in political architecture. Inequality would have to be tolerated, but it could not be allowed to distort political arrangements, to allow certain factions to co-opt power, or to destroy the balance of interests that economic divisions created and that political arrangements would theoretically contain.

The more radical set of ideas that emerged did not come out of imported European notions (with the exception of Robert Owen's experiments), Rousseau, or the Levellers; they were derived from what was seen to be the initial ethical tenets of the American Revolution and the founding principles of American society and politics. The radical critique of economic inequality stressed the need for redistribution, the ending of special privileges, and an opposition to banks and new financial institutions that acted only as means for wealth accumulation. These institutions were regarded as tending toward a new aristocracy, one built on the backs of true and honest labor. The radical critics held that a moral economy based on the liberal ethic of individual labor and property was being shattered at the expense of self-interest and a narrow search for profit, which would result not only in inequality but in the destruction of the republican principles that American society embodied.

But even more, these radical critics of inequality saw that the force of property was once again emerging to destroy the liberal republican notion of political freedom. Indeed, what drove their critique was the realization that relations between employers and employees--characterized essentially by master-servant relations of power--were untouched by the revolution. Instead, these critics held that the new form of economic life that was emerging--industrial capitalism--articulated relations of domination and control reminiscent of the feudal past. The individual was no longer able to keep what he had labored for, on the one hand, and the relations between citizens were refeudalizing, on the other. They sensed what we know today to be the case: that the rise of market society itself was unable to destroy the preliberal labor relations that carried over from the feudal era. And it was these relations that they sought to overturn.

Orestes Brownson's essay "The Laboring Classes" of 1840 pointed out that inequality was not simply the result of banks and privilege. The system itself worked in such a way so as to effectively rob those who labored of their own property. Merchants did this by artificially adding price to what was already produced. Remuneration was no longer based on effort, skill, and labor. It was increasingly becoming based on "mischievous social arrangements" created by the drive for profits and the manipulation of the market: "It may be laid down as a general rule, with but few exceptions, that men are rewarded in an inverse ratio to the amount of actual service they perform."

[the radicals] accepted the idea that individual labor was the source of wealth as well as equality, but they rejected Lockean ideas such as the ability to claim ownership through the payment of wages, a core aspect of Locke's pre-political state of nature and a crucial addition to his labor theory of value. Instead, they argued that there was a conception of the common good that needed to be enforced: unequal wealth would be the path toward a new feudalism and the destruction of liberty.   

Their movement failed, but not because their arguments were not heard. Their critiques of inequality resounded with skilled laborers and new workers in a rapidly changing economic system. The move to large-scale industrialism would render calls for the abolition of wage labor obsolete.

Welcome back :-)

Same respect here for Jerome, I often quote his excellent articles on the fossil fuel competition by Big Capitalism and the initiative for wars.

Hope you have a duster with you ... ;-)

'Sapere aude'

by Oui (Oui) on Mon Jan 9th, 2023 at 12:00:03 AM EST
by Oui (Oui) on Mon Jan 9th, 2023 at 12:14:13 AM EST
See today's scene in Brazil ... the Trump Factor.

Pro-Bolsonaro Supporters Invade Congress and Supreme Court

Latin American Leaders Reject Anti-democratic Coup in Brazil. They strongly reject the invasion of the headquarters of the three branches of government in the nation's capital, Brasilia.

Leaders and political organizations of Latin America and the Caribbean repudiated the attacks on democracy perpetrated this Sunday by supporters of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who invaded the headquarters of the three branches of government in the nation's capital, Brasilia.

'Sapere aude'
by Oui (Oui) on Mon Jan 9th, 2023 at 12:16:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Himachal Pradesh: Thousands despair as India Adani plants shut down

"I don't know what our fault is. What have we done to deserve this?" says a distraught Kanta Sharma, pointing to a shuttered cement plant in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

It's one of two plants - the other is located around 48km (30 miles) away - in Darlaghat that were shut down in December by their owner, Adani Group, leaving thousands of locals without work.

Since her husband died in 2009, Ms Sharma has depended entirely on the plant to make a living. She took a loan and dipped into her savings to purchase a truck to transport cement and raw material to and from the plant. The little land the family owned was acquired when the plant was built.

The Adani Group - owned by billionaire Gautam Adani, the world's third richest man - bought the factories in September, but soon ended up in a dispute with local transport unions over freight charges. The company said operations had become "unviable" because of the losses it was incurring due to "high transportation costs".

The stand-off has not just affected the 2,000-3,000 people who were directly employed by these plants, but also thousands of others.

"About 10,000-15,000 people are indirectly dependent on these plants, including truck operators, drivers, cleaners, [workers at] roadside eateries and vehicle repair garages," said RD Nazeem, the state's industries and transport secretary.

Himachal High Court seeks reply from Adani group

'Sapere aude'

by Oui (Oui) on Mon Jan 9th, 2023 at 12:34:12 AM EST
I'm deeply distressed by the lack of historical understanding of who Michael Milkin was

Some 30 years ago, I was part of a team that assembled what is basically an intelligence dossier on Milkin and his operation. In no way does Milkin represent a shift and break from the traditional Anglo-American establishment control of Wall Street and American finance. The entire network of Milkin's corporate raiders, in fact, were merely front men - thugs - deployed by old line oligarchical families as they pursued their policy of deliberate de-industrialization. Rupert Murdoch was no fucking upstart, either.

More about Michael Milken here @EuroTrib ...

'Sapere aude'
by Oui (Oui) on Mon Jan 9th, 2023 at 09:16:57 PM EST
Becoming a Banana Republic | by ARGeezer on Mar 30th, 2009 |

Simon Johnson appeared on MSNBC Monday with David Schuster.  There he said that this financial crisis has the potential to be worse than the Great Depression that we are running out of time to deal effectively to prevent such an outcome and that a solution requires some form of nationalization of the big banks and breaking up the financial oligarchy that now controls US politics.  The most difficult task in his opinion will be breaking the power of the oligarchy.  I am very glad to see this said in the national electronic media.  The interview referenced an article in the May Atlantic Monthly:

You may want to read the entire article, but excerpts are posted below the fold.

'Sapere aude'
by Oui (Oui) on Mon Jan 9th, 2023 at 09:17:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hi NB. Civic republicanism. I am on board.
Thanks for the review. Thompson's book confirms my own intuitions on the subject :

All the great (Western, but not only) thinkers come to the same conclusions from first principles : a just, harmonious and SUSTAINABLE society can only exist in conditions of relative economic equality.

Rousseau, as pointed out by Graeber and Wengrow in The Dawn of Everything , was undoubtedly influenced by Amerindian thinking. Their main thesis in the book is that, contrary to the precepts of the sciences of anthropology and archaeology (which sciences were formulated in the very hierarchical 19th century), egalitarianism has always been one of the basic principles of human social organisation, in perpetual competition with competitive, exploitive and hierarchical social organisation.

They also point out (using the North American anthropological record, but also in reinterpreting old-world archeological research) that hierarchical/exploitive and egalitarian societies have often existed side by side, in fairly close proximity.

An example of recent archeological finds in Turkey, documented in their book has captured my imagination : a village composed of a hundred or so circular beaten-earth houses, of identical size, existed (with reconstruction of each house every 100 years or so...) for a thousand years (about 8000 years before the present). Sustainability!

Interesting detail : artifacts from the site indicate that it was a matriarchal society. Not a coincidence, I think.

I have recently started writing a novel set in this neolithic environment, exploring the interactions of this village with other contemporaneous forms of social organisations.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Tue Jan 10th, 2023 at 09:29:30 AM EST
How sustainable is "Intra-European Mobility" (a condition of Marie Curie fellowships which are basically what remains of research funding), which asks from researchers to move every three years from job to job and one EU country to the other (making sure they can only use English for their applications and as a working language).
What is the point by the way to support LGBT families when apparently families are not a luxury researchers can afford?
by Tom2 on Sat Jan 21st, 2023 at 10:46:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
What if the goal of a new war for Europe was to empty the pockets of the boomers, i.e. the last generation to enjoy a full pension (in the countries where they dont park their money in Jersey, the Bahamas and Delaware) ?
by Tom2 on Sat Jan 21st, 2023 at 02:13:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 16 July 1814
in re: imitation, social contracts, and guardians of a Republic, Book 10
by Cat on Tue Jan 10th, 2023 at 03:56:21 PM EST

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