Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.


 

Blog #58b: From Civil Rights to Human Rights via Transformative Rights.

 

The issues raised by the discussion of utopias in Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands, have a striking parallel in the discussion about rights, ranging from civil rights to human rights via transformative rights.

 

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I.                 Rights: Human Rights and Civil Rights

 

“Rights” has many meanings, as in: ” human rights,” ” the right to the city,” “the rights of man,” “women’s rights’ or “minority rights.” When we speak of minority rights, we mean the rights of minority groups to be treated fairly and equally in matters in matters in which treatment should not vary by minority status, e.g. color of skin. What “fairness” and “equally” mean may be debatable, but what “rights” means is clear. It is a claim that the law, the existing judicial system, must see to it that the desired end is achieved, and if they do not do so, they should be changed so that they will. It is a critical, but not a radical or revolutionary, call.

A.    Human Rights

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson speaks of right that is self-evident: “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”[3] The French revolution’s “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” and Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man” saw rights in a quite different sense: as a revolutionary change in the entire structure of society, certainly of the nation, as an ultimate goal, not one or a specific set of rights, but a claim to a system, to an independence, that would permit rights to be pursued, not within the existing, but within a new, society”Rights,” in the minority rights meaning of the term, is a claim for a change in legal standing within an existing system; in the French or revolutionary meaning, it is a goal for a movement of fundamental social change. . For The socialist Jaurès the French revolution’s “rights of man” “anticipated socialist utopianism, not legal internationalism.”[4]

 

B.    Civil Rights

Jefferson’s right, an inalienable human right, is clearly a right to change the system; it is, after all, in a revolutionary Declaration of Independence. Civil rights, historically, are rights within the system, rights in fact the system itself is called on to guarantee.

The point is more than an academic one. It came quite dramatically to fore again in the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960’s, when a significant part of the movement began to make it clear they wished, not simply to be included within the existing framework of laws and government, but within an entirely new one.

In Sam Moyn’s excellent story of the varing role of “rights” discussions over the course of history, the tension between civil rights and human rights formulations reflects somewhat the same difference in the meaning of rights, from immediate demands to broader goal statements. Human rights claims, in W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King are on the other hand more on the order of what Moyn calls “transformative utopianism.” Moyn also highlights the relationship between internal human rights efforts as going beyond more limited domestic and practical claims, as in Stokely Carmichael’s move from a United States-centered to an internationally-oriented effort, and Malcolm X’s vision of “human rights—but in the sense of collective liberation from imperial subordination.”[5] It is a movement between a critical and a radical or revolutionary meaning, between  change within and change of, the system, the underlying structures of of power that define how a society operates. It is a movement which depends on the historical possibilities of the particular moment.

C. Transformative Rights

While the right literature on rights offers much more material for examining the questions raised above than is possible here, the suggestion of linking internal political struggles around civil rights and international struggles around human rights, clarifying the implications of each for the other, as Sam Moyn ‘s work does, should have wider attention in social movements which often use the language of rights to formulate their claims. As with utopianism there is the danger that human rights is pushed into a limited consideration of what the United Nations of international law are willing to recognize and enforce, neglecting to examine what taking human rights seriously might mean for changes not only within the existing systems of international law but also for changes in the very meaning of “civil law” within national states. It is fertile ground for further constructive exploration. The concept of transformative rights might be useful.

 

[1] Significantly, it is a singular right that Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[2] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[3] Significantly, it is a singular right Jefferson cites, one big one, to a new country in the context, not multiple immediate if critical rights within existing national relationships.

[4] Moyn, op. cit., p, 40.

[5] See Samuel Moyn. 2010, The Last Utopia, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., pp, 104-106. Moyn does not generalize to the conclusion I suggest in the text, but focuses on the multiple ways “rights” have been political issues over the course of history, suggesting how their meaning has changed with their context, and I believe the dichotomous meanings referred to here are revealed in many instances.

Posted in Critical Theory, Inequality, Loaded Language, Occupy, Right to the City, Social Justice, Social Movements | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.


Blog 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.

The Occupy movement was frequently criticized for not making immediate and concrete programmatic demands. The movement challenging climate change and calling for society to become managed along ecological lines is sometimes charged with the same failure. The slogan, “Cities for people, Not for Profit,” and the Right to the City movement, are likewise often faulted in the same way, charged with being utopian, unrealistic, naïve. The tension between efforts to bring about changes within the system, to meet priority needs as a priority goal, or to change the system itself to deal with long-term causes and consequences, is a tension fraught with difficulties, both in theory and in practice. Examining the handling of utopias and utopian ideas , while on its face perhaps theoretical, can provide some illumination as to the practical alternatives for social movements as well.

I. Utopian Utopias and Non-Utopian Utopias

A. Utopian Utopias, “utopian” ideas.

“Utopia” and “utopian”: those are two quite different words, often used with quite different meanings and, if they are used without attention to the difference, they can have quite different, even contradictory, practical implications The discussions of utopia go far back in history, at least to the Greeks, recurs in the discussions of and within the Occupy movement, and is the source of on-going tensions in discussions of strategies of social change all over the world: are the goals of this movement or the assumptions of this program or that utopian, or is the spelling out of a vision of utopia now a mobilizing impetus for movements of social change? The focus on such questions was hot in the 1960’s, in the new left, in the anti-colonial struggles and movements for national liberation, in the peace movements. They perhaps came most sharply into focus in 1968, with Herbert Marcuse’s talk on The End of Utopia in Berlin[1] and in the signs displayed by the students on the streets of Paris that year: “Be Realistic; Demand the Impossible.”

Recognizing the differences in the two meanings, the positive meanings of “utopia” and “utopian” as ideally desirable and the negative meaning of the two terms as meaning “impossible” and “unattainable” leads to the question

“Is utopia still a utopian concept?”

Using utopia in the positive meaning and utopian in the negative.

Thus: “is an ideal society still unattainable? “

So we need to distinguish between two concepts of utopia: that of 1) a an imaginable but unattainable perfect future state, a utopian utopia, and that of a good, or a just, society, in which the principles of social justice would prevail, a just utopia seen as the goal of actual political social, and economic societal arrangements, a concrete, really attainable utopia: an attainable utopia, for short, as the word will be used here, “attainable” as opposed to “utopian.”   It was then argued that by the 1960’s there should be an end to the painting of an utopian utopia because an attainable utopia had become possible, and continuing to define it as utopian was conservative if not self-defeating.

B.    Attainable Utopias

In what sense could there be an attainable utopia? In 1967, it was said in Berlin

“Today any form of the concrete world, of human life, any transformation of the technical and natural environment is a possibility, and the locus of this possibility is historical. Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia, that is, the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities. It can also be understood as the “end of history” in the very precise sense that the new possibilities for a human society and its environment can no longer be thought of as continuations of the old, nor even as existing in the same historical continuum with them. Rather, they presuppose a break with the historical continuum; they presuppose the qualitative difference between a free society and societies that are still unfree, which, according to Marx, makes all previous history only the prehistory of mankind.”[2]

There are other interpretations of the End of Utopia formulation, notably by Russell Jacoby and Sam Moyn, which however use the concept,[3] 20 some years after Herbert Marcuse used it, in a quite different way from his use. They consider it still as the exercise of picturing a perfect although unattainable world and pursuing it, and see the ending of that result as a defeat of the aspiration for a radical change in society.[4] Herbert Marcuse, I believe, would have agreed, but differentiated a utopian utopia from an attainable utopia, from the real possibility of making a close to perfect world no longer unattainable, no longer utopian as a unrealizable ideal, but a goal now possible of achievement.

The political implications of taking all utopias to be utopian are strong. If one wants to use utopia in that sense, it follows that striving for utopia, or even spending time thinking through and imagining what a utopia might be like, is a useless exercise. If, however, one wants to argue that today utopia is no longer a utopian, in the sense of unrealizable, vision, but rather one that can be a concrete goal of human (political) activity, what follows is rather an incitement to concrete political action. It was an optimistic vision, as opposed to Moyn’s implicit assumption that utopia and utopian are necessarily associated and unachievable concepts. But I argue that an attainable utopia today is both optimistic, in its presentation of a lofty goal that is achievable, although pessimistic in agreement with Jacoby and Moyn, that the effort to achieve it as an immediate goal seems quite remote, depending on how one reads history. But I argue that there is a new real historical possibility of the realization of an attainable utopia requires a change in policy and program, in which the realization of that possibility, while it cannot be seen as an immediate goal (pessimism), can yet inspire individual partial steps towards its realization that may, as they come together, still make ultimate success possible (optimistic).

Thus, today, implicitly to label all discussions of utopia as utopian is politically loaded, conservative, hostile to efforts for fundamental social change.

It would not always have been so. The End of Utopia argument, as the long quotation above suggests, is made in a specific historical context, and I would rather read Moyn and Jacoby as reading that historical context today as different from what it was in the 1960’s. If the historical context indeed does not support the contention that attainable utopias are today possible, if the “historical continuum” in which earlier discussion of utopias still continues unbroken, then indeed today all utopias really are utopian. The belief that there has been a fundamental historical change, some time after World War I and increasingly thereafter, in which technological development has advanced far enough to make a society of abundance, of plenty for all, a real physical possibility, is a belief that has substantial support, and seems, if one things about it, intuitively plausible: if all the waste that goes into production for war, for unsatisfying luxury consumption and satisfaction of inflated and “false” needs, for competition for status and conspicuous consumption, for growth for its own sake, for legal and illegal theft, were instead funneled to challenges into ending existing inequities, into production of the necessities for a decent life for all in a society that put justice above profit and power, could not abundance for all, a real utopia, be realized today, even though hardly foreseeable in any earlier historical period?

The point is simple: an attainable utopia, not “utopian” in the sense of “unrealizable,” is a possibility today more than it has ever been before in history.

C.    Critical Utopias.

But even in earlier historical periods, the criticism that talk of utopias was useless and irrelevant to positive social change is only partially correct. It is correct, for instance, if heaven is seen as a utopia to be achieved in the hereafter, not in the now, thus preaching submission and patience and tolerance of injustices that will be rewarded, not in this life, but after it. This idea of utopia explicitly confined to the bye and bye indeed justifies that comment in the opening quotation: they are conservative if they amount to

“the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities.”

For this use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities is aspect of some historical discussions of utopia that have a most critical edge, and that conceivably still have, even if indeed history is still tilted against their concrete realization

For many, perhaps most, imaginings of utopias historically have not as their purpose the presentation of an ideal society to be achieved, but rather have been a criticism of the societies in which they are written. They were not arguments for the realization of a particular utopia, a particular new society differently structured and different motivated, but rather efforts to show how ludicrous existing arrangements were, how badly they required change. Whether that change was through reform or revolution, liberal or radical, was often not elucidated. One thinks of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, H. G. Wells A Modern Utopia, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This use of utopias as critical was thus indeed utopian, in its unrealistic sense, but not, in its historical context, an argument against social change, but rather one for it. How far concrete utopias might in their day be realized was quite different from how that might be realized today. Their political position then was as critical of the existing societies as discussions of utopia can still be today, if their ultimate attainability is not rejected ab initio. The purpose of these critical utopias was very much the same, if upside down, from novels appropriately called dystopian—the opposite of utopian—by writers such as Jack London in The Iron Heel or George Orwell in 1984. Dystopias are the presentation of an imaginary world, not as likely to be achieved, but to expose how the existing one was deficient. Utopias did it by showing what the better alternatives could be imagined, dystopias by what worse alternatives might be imagined to They were not intended to be blueprints for a new society to be achieved. Both critical utopias and dystopias were critical calls to action, in fantasized forms, intended to influence actions required to be undertaken in their contemporary societies.

So one may speak of a utopian utopia, a critical utopia, and an attainable utopia: a utopian utopia conservative in its political implications, a critical utopia or dystopia critically reformist in its political implications, and an attainable utopia, radical in its ultimate political implications, each very much dependent on its historical context.

There remains, then, the question of whether the historical context today is still the same as that of the 1960’s, whether indeed the optimism of those days on the streets and universities around the world was justified, and if not, what the conclusion as to the utopianism of utopias is today. It is hard, in a time of economic instability, high unemployment, increasing inequality, environmental degradation, unaddressed climate change, war and campaign of bombing and attrition, strong right-wing and racist tendencies in even the most formally democratic countries, to visualize even the possibilities of an attainable utopia.[5] Martin Jay certainly felt, in 1999, that visualizing the concept, as in Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “now reads like a document of a long lost civilization,[6] Is there then, at least in the short term, any surviving political relevance to the concept of utopia?

D.    Utopian Communities as Models for Transformation.

The term “utopian community” is often used to describe planned communities built in the last two centuries, and Sam Moyn uses the term “transformative utopianism” to describe “minimalist, hardy utopia[s] that could survive in a harsh climate.”[7] His reference is to the idealism of some of the protests of the the 1960’s, but the term might also be used to describe the planned communities like or Brook Farm or New Harmony or Oneida in the United States, or, very recently, eco-villages or planned communities or utopian experimental socialist models. Many were limited to attempts to implement different models for the physical growth of a community, laying out town plans and land use arrangements in a critical direction, as the Garden City movement. One might call various efforts to approach efforts of fundamental change as partially utopian in a limited way, as in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement and its spin-offs. And very down-to-earth reforms such as expansion of cooperative structures to broad sectors of the economy, worker-owned enterprises such as Gar Alperovitz espouses, have a touch of utopianism about them, if very much in Moyn’s sense of minimalist for harsh social climates. The issue of whether what is espoused represents change within the system or of the system is not always clear; the underlying hope is undoubtedly for both.

II. Transformative utopianism

Utopian, however, in almost all historical usages, carries with it the idea of complete change, a different society as a whole, as in its original use by Sir Thomas More and the subsequent thinkers discussed above. A “partial utopia” is really an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Striving for efforts at reform, by definition less than a complete or revolutionary change, can thus only properly be called “utopian” in the sense that they may prefigure one part of a utopia, on step towards complete change, part of a transition towards something more. Rather than call such efforts “utopian,” with its dominant usage as unrealistic, desirable but unattainable, does its transformative potential a disservice. There is a continuum in efforts of social change, ranging from small-scale, clearly piece-meal actions and ideas – “increase the amount of affordable housing till no one is homeless” – to large-scale goals, such as “provide housing on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.” It is stretching it to goal the former utopian,” but it may in fact be seen, and advanced, as part of efforts to attain the latter, maybe a utopian housing system, a partial utopia. I think it would be more effective to speak of such a partial, or even sectoral, goal as transformative utopianism.[8]

And in this more limited meaning, but still at the forward edge of the politically relevant, I believe pressing the case for a long-range and comprehensive perspective of social change, efforts to work out the outlines of an attainable utopia, of a critical utopia, of a transformative utopia, can still play an important and positive role. Immediate and concrete programmatic demands for reforms need such utopian perspective today if they are to have a lasting impact tomorrow. The trick is formulating and fighting for demands that both secure immediate benefits but raise the possibilities of broader social transformation; demands that address the narrow immediate but open to vista to the whole, demands both for change within the system and change of the system.

[1] lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967. Reprinted in                                   vol   of

[2] Herbert Marcuse, The End of Utopia, First Published: in Psychoanalyse und Politik; lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967, included in Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution and Utopia, ed. Douglas Kellner, Routledge, 29014, also available at www.marcuse.org/herbert/ and at ttps://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/marcuse/works/1967/end-utopia.htm

[3] Samuel Moyn, 2010, The Last Utopia: Human Right in History, Cambridge, Mass, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Russell Jacoby, 2,000. The End of Utopia Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. Basic Books.

[4] For a short overview of other uses of utopias, see Marcuse, Peter. “Utopias and Dystopias in Brecht (with a side glance at Herbert Marcuse)” in Silberman, Marc, and Florian Vassen, ed., 2004. Mahagonny.com The Brecht Yearbook 29, The International Brecht society: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 23-30., available http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/German/German-idx?type=turn&entity=German.BrechtYearbook029.p0042&id=German.BrechtYearbook029&isize=M

[5] Herb Gans has tried to do so, in a thoughtful way, in Imagining America in 2033: How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2009. But it has not attracted the widespread attention it deserves

[6] Review in London Review of Books, “The Trouble with Nowhere” June 1, 2000, p. 23.

[7] Op. cit. pp. 119, 120.

[8] For more on the concept of transformation, see my Blog #30, Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas, at pmarcuse.wordpress.com.

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Blog #57 – – “Public” opinion and the innocent media.


Blog #57 – “Public” opinion and the innocent media.

N. Gregory Mankiw, professor of economics at Harvard. writes:

“Media owners generally do not try to mold the population to their own brand of politics. Instead, like other business owners, they maximize profit by giving customers what they want.”
“These findings speak well of the marketplace. In the market for news, as in most other markets, Adam Smith’s invisible hand leads producers to cater to consumers. How likely is it that we as citizens will change our minds, or reach compromise with those who have differing views, if all of us are getting our news from sources that reinforce the opinions we start with?”

Fine as far as it goes. But four further points need to be made.

1. Multiple markets, multiple “publics.” Sure, media cater to their markets. But which markets? No media outlet can cater to all markets at once. Even if somehow media owners were devoid of any opinions of their own and scrupulously avoided injecting even the suspicion of injecting whatever opinions they had into their media – hardly likely given the strong personalities and convictions most of them have. And even if they were guided only by purely market concerns, that is, maximizing their profits, they would take into account the sources of their revenues, which include advertising. Advertisers recognize that there isn’t just one market out there, but many, and they cater to the one that will produce their own greatest profit. Newspapers, most media, looking to maximize their ad revenue, will thus cater to the audience to whom their advertisers cater. Advertisers professionally try to influence their potential markets; they don’t work on the idea that buyers will keep the preferences they start with, but try to mold those preferences to suit their clients And that pressure to please the particular pre-selected market inevitably caries the actions of the media with it.

2. The vicious circle of media and opinion. Sure thy go along with, and try to reinforce, the opinions that their selected part of the market members already holds. That indeed makes it harder for them to change, if they are only fed back what they already believe. But where did the “opinions they started with” come from? Surely they did not come from their experience in the womb, but were influenced from an early age, by what they heard, saw, were told by the media. They didn’t “start with the opinion” that ObamaCare was wrong; they got that from the media to which they were exposed. It’s not only had for them to change their opinions, as Mankiw correctly point out, it was the media that shaped those opinions to begin with. It’s indeed a classically vicious circle. The media should not be exonerated from their responsibility in what they do.
3. The innocence of media owners. It is hardly a sustainable contention that the the “brand of politics” of media owners does not affect what the media they own produces – think of Murdoch, think of Hearst, think of Sulzberger.

4. Journalistic ethics. Is it time to admit that there is no such thing as an ethics of journalism that plays any role in the media as they are in the real world, or should we perhaps recognize that reporters vary widely in their views of journalism as a profession with a set of ethics, and vary widely in the freedom they have to write their own stories without interference from the higher-ups controlling the business in which they work, with the power to hire and fire. The media is not simply another producer of a commodity on the market likes shoes and cars, but of something special, with a special public responsibility. ? Jefferson and Paine certainly thought so.

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Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.


Blog # 55c – The Blocked Questions on Inequality.

[Blog #55a has tried, in outline form, to explain the existence of inequality in the U.S.A.]

[Blog #55b has asked mores specifically how that inequality came about and why it is tolerated in a democracy.]

This Blog #55c gives three examples, from different points of view, of how challenges to that inequality are blocked in the discourse about it.

The limits of Piketty.

 Thomas Piketty’s work has received deserved acclaim among economists in the mainstream, and even among some on the left. He clearly relates increased inequality to the growth of wealth and capital, Iin other words, inequality is increasing because the 1%’s share of growth is increasing. Historically, Piketty argues, as Steven Pressman, in a review in the “social justice and economic democracy committed” journal Dollars and Sense,[1] summarizes it, although inequality had been declining, “in the 1970’s or1980’s…the moneyed class revolted and began to influence policy. Top income-tax rates fell, income and wealth inequality rose rapidly.” The focus is clearly on the 1%. The conclusion is to tax it more heavily again, both its wealth and its income. But, Piketty concedes, an unlikely immediate development. Period.

What Piketty brings to the discussion is very much; what is surprisingly missing is as great. His analysis seems to cry out for answers to questions he does not ask: how does that wealth of the 1% come to them in the first place, what in the process of production that Miller refers to gives them their wealth, how come when the moneyed class revolted it was able to influence policy so strongly, why is it unlikely to be taxed down? “When the rate of return to capital (r) exceeds the growth rate of the economy (g)… more money flows to those at the top and inequality increases.” Obviously; that’s simply stating a tautology: when capital gets more of growth, non-capital gets less. Money seems to flow up-hill quite naturally, in such an economy. Wouldn’t the logical next question be, if the concern is for inequality, how could one reverse the flow? But the existence, and propriety, of the reverse gravity is simply taken for granted.

And the progressive economist reviewing Piketty has no better conclusion than to wish for “even more fire in [Piketty’s] soul for a global wealth tax.” His consolation for Piketty’s pessimism is that Malthus was pessimistic too, and look, he was wrong; maybe Piketty will be wrong too.[2] The problem is not so much that Piketty’s recommendations, or the reviewer’s wishes are wrong. Indeed a global wealth tax is well worth fighting for. The problem is that neither is pushing their questions to the next logical level of inquiry: how the difference in wealth between the 1% and the 99%, capital and non-capital, comes about in the first place.

Leveling down or leveling up.

 We read in a brief summary of how to deal with inequality dealing with “the underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty and inequality,” by a well and properly respected liberal sociologist and veteran of the anti-poverty wars, that the choice is between two approaches: Leveling Down the 1% or Leveling up the 99%.[3] Leveling Down, in the form of “increasing tax rates on the 1% would… ineffectively combat the continuing production of wide-ranging poverties and inequalities.. .”[4] The simple idea that levelling down the 1% might in fact be the best way to leveling up the 99%, because the profits of the 1% are built on the lower wages of the 99%, simply does not appear in the discussion. Miller might well agree that it is so; he points out that financial industries captured 40% of all business profits…and they certainly did not provide 40% of all jobs, while making a substantial contribution to income and wealth disparities.”[5] But the logical conclusion that limiting the profits of the business sector might help level up the incomes and wealth of the 99% is not pursued.

But what are underlying causes of our continuing high degree of poverty? “The American Economy is shaping up as a low-wage economy producing …” poverty. “…the production of these low-wage jobs is a great obstacle to… contraction of poverties and inequalities.” These jobs are in the “low-wage service sector.” “Yes, we should definitely seek to improve wages in that sector,” but the better route is to reduce the role of those jobs and rather foster jobs in construction, for instance, where the pay is better.

The point here is not that Miller is wrong in his recommendations; they should be supported as part of a broad effort to reduce inequality. The point is that what is missing in his discussion is any confrontation with the simple fact that the wealth and income of the 1% are related to the lack of wealth and incomes of so many of the 99%.

Low wage jobs are simply accepted as low-wage jobs; the wages should be higher, but low wage is simply what those jobs are. The financial industry makes 40% of the profits of business. That’s too much, but it’s not an “underlying cause of inequality.” And the jobs that need creating are not simply jobs that pay well, but jobs that do useful work, not speculate better or privatize more.

No larger pie. The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter, in his Economic Scene column in that mainstream paper, believes he has the answer, gotten by “Taking a Hard-Eyed Look At U.S. Income Inequality and the Problems Behind it.”[6] At various points he quotes, apparently approvingly, Gregory Mankiw, an economic advisor to President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney, advocates focusing on “increasing educational attainment,” and holds, in as forthright a conservative statement as one would want, that “Inequality itself is the wrong thing to look at… The question is, how do we help people at the bottom, rather than thwart people at the top? … “Policies that address the symptom rather than the cause include higher taxes and a more generous social safety net,” says Mankiw. So helping people at the bottom doesn’t work, perhaps because it might thwart those at the top? “The best way to address inequality is to focus on increasing educational attainment [because] technological progress has benefitted well educated workers.” But then there are a series of comments pointing out that “education isn’t doing it” either. Nor does “technological progress” seem to be the answer either, for “the real problem is slow growth.” according to Mankiw‘s presumably hard-eyed look.

But, Porter says at the end of his discussion, apparently sympathetically, getting to “the nub of the issue,” that, “as the richest Americans capture a larger and larger share of the fruits of growth, for many people the essential question becomes: What is the point of creating a larger pie?” Well! So it is the division of the pie that counts, after all, and maybe those at the top do need to be thwarted, if the nub is to be dealt with?

Although Porter has thus gone much further than the avowedly liberal Miller in linking the growing wealth of the 1% to the poverty of the poor, charging that the rich are capturing – presumably from the poor – a large part of the pie, he seems to go back to an earlier comment in the middle of his piece, said more or less in passing: “even avowedly liberal social scientists have had a tough time figure out the negative consequences of the rise of the 1 percent.” Without noticing that he has himself just figured it out, he concludes with a classic cop-out: “That’s the post-Great Recession reality.”

 

————————————————

[1] “Piketting Wealth Inequality,” July/August 2014, p. 26.

[2] P. 37

[3] S.M. Miller, “Breaking the Low-Wage Syndrome, Poverty & Race, vol. 23, No. 4, July/August 2014, p. 9.

[4] Miller also properly points out that the effort to tax the 1% has been largely unsuccessful but does not address the question of why that is, the main point raised here.

[5] Ibid.

[6] July 30, 2014, p. B1, B8.

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Blog #55b – Why Does Inequality Have Popular Support?


Blog #55b – Why Does Inequality Have Popular Support?

The Agents of Inequality The Agents of InequalityThe Processes of Inequality: Exploitation, Dispossession, Incorporation

I have argue here and elsewhere[1] that

Social inequality is caused, not by any technical developments or by agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it, but because it directly serves the interest of the 1%, who have the power to impose it through the processes of exploitation, dispossession, and incorporation. Inequality is inevitably a matter of conflict, roughly between the 1% and the 99%. Any serious effort to reduce inequality must deal with this simple and obvious fact.

(It should be clear that we are talking about social inequality, inequalities in social relations reflecting hierarchies of power and wealth, not individual differences or inequalities in strength, wisdom, inherent abilities, virtues. It is of course what Jefferson meant in the Declaration of Independence’s ringing declaration: “all men are created equal.” They obviously differ in size, weight, talent, strength, desires, etc.; it’s the social relations among them that is in question.)

But what are the concrete processes that create social inequality, that permit the 1% to impose social inequality in society, to their benefit?

The answer, again, can be given in a few words: Exploitation, Historical Dispossession, Capitalist Dispossession (Expropriation), and Incorporation

Historic dispossession actually came first, in primitive societies and pre-feudal monarchies and empires and autocracies. The 1%, the established rulers, chieftains, monarchs, simply were entitled to take possession of what they wanted from anyone in their power. They did this through the exercise of brute force: slavery, where the masters took possession of anything of the slaves that they wished, war, where the spoils of the war were simply taken by the victors from the losers as their spoils.. The practice persisted well into feudalism, with the divine right of kinds (even Mozart built on its recognition in Figaro’s objection to the exercise of the Rights of the Seigneur in 1786!). And the dispossession of villagers’ use of the traditional commons for grazing, what we would now call privatization, was a significant part of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.[2]

Exploitation is a widely understood concept, and understood as a constitutive component of capitalism in the form of the wage relationship in production. , and focuses on the processes by which one person or group obtains the benefits of someone else’s labor through the payment of wages that do not equal the value of that labor. The profits accruing to the employer in that relationship accrue to capital, are a “return to capital” in Piketty’s sesnse, a conspicuously non-judgmental phrase for a relationship that could raise some questions of justice but which clearly benefit the 1% and the expense of a major part of the 99%, and contribute to a mounting inequality as capitalist forms of production expand and go global.

Capitalist dispossession, however, accompanies the drive to ever-increasing profit (what Marx calls primitive accumulation and David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession[3]). Colonialism is its manifestation at the international level, but is paralleled by national practices. Rosa Luxemburg spoke of “The right to take possession, oppression, looting, are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment, and implemented by force if necessary.”[4] But in its mature capitalist form it is put forward as a right, and a right available to anyone, not merely of a chieftain or king exerting a hereditary or divine right to its exercise.

Foreclosing on a mortgage effectively dispossesses the “owner” of the house of his occupancy of it, and expropriates the house to the bank or financial institution that holds the mortgage. And the force behind it is state sanctioned and applied, if not under specific legislation then by execution of judgments in courts of law. The Sheriff will enforce the order of eviction a court grants, and forcefully puts the owner’s property on the street.

Contemporary dispossession (expropriation) differs from both its preceding forms, historic and capitalist, in two major ways;

  • Contemporary dispossession is much less focused on physical dispossession, and involves a whole range of broader goods and assets, including property rights in all sorts of values which are included when one speaks of inequality. Contemporary dispossession might more properly be called expropriation, the taking of some key rights in that bundle of rights called ownership, key rights that go into the composition of wealth and power that Piketty, unlike Marx, lumps together in the term capital. The most obvious, of course, is the right to income or a share in the profits from an investment. Expropriation here is not the taking of the physical stock certificate, but the justification for not honoring a supposed “right” to a proper return on the investment. The right to an education, the right to health care, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to security of the person, the right to the sanctity of the home free of trespass, the right to vote, are all rights the 1% take for granted, but that large parts of the 99% find in practice not or barely available to them. The effective elimination of those rights in practice leads directly to the relative reduced wealth and income of the 99% and the expansion of the wealth and income of the 1%, increasing inequality by the most conventional of measures, and in a quite fundamental way. As an (critical) example, every reduction in the progressivity of taxes used to make such rights meaningful goes directly in the pockets of the 1% and the expense of those in need of those rights.
  • Contemporary dispossession in fact largely creates those very rights and values it then expropriates. Ironically, when the “owner” of a home among the 99% loses it in foreclosure, his or her very ability to purchase it was enabled through high credit by the institutions of the 1%, who end up unharmed by the foreclosure. The bank owner, surely among the 1%, itself enabled the creation of the owned homes of many of the 99% which it helped finance, and then through foreclosure dispossesses the homeowner of that home to its own benefit, widening the gap between the two. The whole process of financialization, and the credit bubble it engendered has caused harm to the 99% from which the 1% have benefited, so that their share of the society’s wealth has increased while that of the 99% has decreased. It is a case of private dispossession/expropriation.

How could the 1% get away with this, in an advanced democracy? It couldn’t happen without support, including much active support, from a large part of the population, at least in the so-called “advanced democracies.”

Incorporation is the best term I can think of for the answer. Not in the sense of forming a corporation, of course, but in the sense of absorbing any potential resistance within it, making the resistance itself part of the system it attempts to criticize. Co-optation might be an easier term, but it is co-optation at a fundamental level, deliberately provoked and nurtured out of self-interest. But then internalized as natural, inevitable, and indeed desirable by the majority whose interests are in fact badly served by it. If the key cause of inequality is what was theorized at the opening here:

Social inequality is caused, not by any technical developments or by agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it, but because it directly serves the interest of the 1%; who have the power to impose it.

The question becomes how have the 1% amassed that power, and why are the 99% not able to resist it?

But that question is simply missing from mainstream discussions of inequality, and rarely raised even in critical discussions in economics even from the left, where it might be expected but where it seems to encounter a blockage that requires understanding. Instead what critical analysis exists is incorporated in a mainstream analysis that neglects fundamental conflicts and instead pokes at the edges of the problem sometimes with sensible but limited suggestions for reform that are incorporated into the mainstream of reform discussions, but shy away from even acknowledging the deeper issues of conflicts of interest that a more iconoclastic discussion would engender. And as the discussion veers away from these conflicts at the ideological level, the political attitude towards inequality likewise veers away from unsettling proposals and ends up incorporated within the mainstream in at best mild reforms at its edges and at worst celebrating its existence.

Such incorporation into the mainstream is produced by the combination of two factors:

1) at the discourse level, suppression of the acknowledgement of conflict: the domination of public discussion of the issues by ideological analysis incorporated into an acceptable mainstream blind to the conflict-laden causes and alternatives, and spread through media practices and institutional support into the popular consciousness; and

2) at the political level, consumerism leads to acquiescence: the strong lure of artificially induced consumerism, as reality and as hope, smothers criticism and incorporates the potential critic into the mainstream of acquiescence.

At the discourse level the public discussion of inequality is strangely limited. It not only circles around partial or simply wrong answers, discussed schematically in Blog 55, Inequality is indeed spoken of in public, and even makes the best seller lists, viz. Piketty, but the public discussion almost always simply fails to address the right questions, fails to push superficial if plausible answers to their roots, to consciously recognize its roots and consequences, to acknowledge the conflicts of interests and motivations.[6]. At both the discourse and the political levels, both effectively suppress or sidetrack.

Blog #55c – The unasked questions about inequality   gives three concrete examples of this blockage of the discourse.

CONCLUSION

How is the foregoing discussion relevant to a concern about inequality? If the analysis is right, a very practical political conclusion. If inequality refers to how the pie is divided, and if inequality is to be reduced, the 1% must give up some of it to the 99%. But the acknowledgement of conflict is suppressed, not because the facts aren’t clear, but because of a simple acquiescence in things as they are, a hard wall that stops both the avowedly liberal and the hard-eyed conservative from extending the implications of their own analysis to the recognition that it will take a serious thwarting of the rich to effectively reduce the inequality of the poor.

The first conclusion: remedying inequality involves a fight, before a search for broad consensus can begin. The causes of inequality are not technical failures, or found by focusing singly on action aimed at improving the lot of the poor, or by changing the poor by education, moral suasion, example, or similar measures. Inequality is the result of real conflicts of interest. In the long run it may be to everyone’s interest, in common, to reduce inequality, but certainly in the short and intermediate run, reducing inequality will involve significant conflicts. It may not be entirely a zero sum game: the advantages of reducing inequality may include greater productivity, less social tension, more effective policy making; but it will also result in some winners and some losers. So the first conclusion: be prepared to fight, challenge the means by which the !% get their greater share of the pie to begin with, seek consensus as far as possible but only around a just answer and realize consensus is not likely to happen except at a very superficial level.

The second conclusion: The forces supporting inequality not homogeneous; the majority can be converted. In the unavoidable fight, figuring out who is on what side is key. As of this writing, it seems clear that a large number of folk, not simply defined by their economic position, support measures that buttress or even promote inequality. Taking the Tea Party, and the conservative wing of the Republican Party as examples, they support lowering taxes, reducing public services, undermining unionization, avoiding minimum wage legislation, increasing security by policing and incarceration, privatizing public services from education to garbage collection to health care, indeed to anything out of which the private sector might make a profit. And in these positions they are supported by a large part of the leaders of public discourse, not only in the media but also among pundits, academics, many religious leaders, grounded in some deeply embedded racial prejudices and social mores.

 But those who objectively end up supporting inequality can be separated analytically. and some can be significantly aroused to recognize their own interests politically. They might be separated, based on the analysis here, into at least two quite different parts: those whose interest these position serve, and those who are in reality adversely affected by them but have been incorporated, willy-nilly, into a pattern contrary to those own interests. In the first group, of which the Koch brothers are perhaps the most conspicuous example, their very material interests are served by inequality: they benefit from the inequality of the others. The 1% benefit directly from the inferior position of the 99%. But they are seduced into supporting the 1%, not only by the media and the doyens of public opinion, but also by their own benefits – their fear of losing those benefits which they already have, even with their limits, in favor of an alternative that is hardly visible on the horizon. They have been incorporated into a system harmful to their own interests by the various processes discussed in this piece. The challenge therefore is to break through those processes and convert even the bulk of the Tea Party supporters into supporters, rather than opponents, of greater equality.

Blog #55a gives an outline answer to why is there inequality.

This #Blog 55b explains why Inequality has so much Popular Support

Blog #55c gives examples of the blockage of key questions.

 

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[1] Blog #55

[2] Marx spoke of dispossession of the commons in the transitional phase from feudalism to capitalism as “primitive accumulation,” essentially the same thing.

[3]What Marx included under the concept, n Harvey’s summary, is included in Appendix A. Harvey’s trenchant discussion of its new form is in Harvey, D. 2004. “The ‘new’ imperialism: accumulation by dispossession.” Socialist Register 40: p. 73..

[4] The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg, quoted by Harvey, D. 2004. p. 73..

[6] Freud can be helpful here, but going beyond the general concept of mass psychology. See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization

Posted in 1%, 99%, Growth, Inequality, Loaded Language, Mortgage foreclosures, Politics, Tea Party | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Blog #55a – Why is there Inequality? It’s no Mystery


Blog #55a – Why is there Inequality in the U.S.A.?

An Answer in 22 and 7 words.

Piketty showed, in 648 pages, that inequality is increasing long-term. It continued in the short term:

In 2009, figures were: average net worth, top 1%;   $16,439,400   bottom 20% minus $14,000

Total Net Worth[1]      Top 1 percent              Bottom 80 percent

1983       33.8%                   18.7%

2010       35.4%                   11.1

Why is this so?

The wrong answers:

1.     Because the need for higher education and more skills is growing. Wrong because:

  1. Access to higher education and skill training is controlled by the 1%. They support education that helps them produce profit, do not support that which could lead to criticism and organization for higher pay.
  2. And higher pay and greater net worth are more related to parents’ incomes, s4ector of the economy, e.g. financial, education, social work, art, than to training and skills.

Because it is just, and criteria for justice in the distribution of income is that a person works harder, contribute more to society, is smarter, needs more, is justly entitled to have more. Wrong because:

  1. Sitting in an office is not harder work than working on an assembly line or collecting garbage, but is paid more because hedge fund managers have more power than factory workers or garbage collectors.
  2. And hedge fund managers do not contribute more to society than social workers or teachers, in fact do major damage.
  3. And there is no evidence the 1% have higher innate IQ’s than the 99%.
  4. And the 1% have more than they need, most of the 99% less.
  5. And the 1% have vastly more than the 99% to begin with.

 

 

The right answer, in 22 words.

 

The 1% are rich because they profit by keeping the 99% poorer. There is only one pie to divide, whatever its size; if the 1% take more, the rest will take proportionately less..

Why is this so, in a democracy, and so little understood?

The wrong answer:

1.     Because the people wanted it that way. The wrong answer because:

2. Wealth provides political power also. And apparent prosperity co-opts opposition.

3. And the 1% control the means of mass communication, and bury the alternatives.And presumed experts of the 1% pontificate that trickle-down will work to the benefit of all.

4. And the 1% control the use of physical force, the use of incarceration, etc.

 

The right answer, in 7 words:

 

Political and economic democracy are too limited.

Blog #55b expands on this answer. Blog # 55c gives concrete examples.

[1] G. William Domhoff, at http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html

Posted in 1%, 99%, Abundance, Inequality, Justice, Politics, Poverty, Property Rights, Social Justice, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blog #54 – Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms


Community Land Trusts as Transformative Housing Reforms

That New York City has a housing problem is rather well known. The devil here is indeed in the big picture as well as in the details. 47% of the city’s low-income renters[1] pay more than half of their incomes to obtain housing. Imagine what paying half your income just for housing means for the ordinary person, let alone one with limited income. 24% live in overcrowded quarters, more than 1.5 persons per room in the standard definition. Neighborhoods are clustered by race, ethnicity, income, household composition –what impolite critics call segregated, one of the most segregated (84.3 on the widely used dissimilarity index, where 100is completely segregated. Only Gary, Detroit, and Milwaukee, of the 314 other metropolitan area in the United States, are more segregated.[2] 224,000 units were in physically poor conditions. 164,000 units were vacant but not available for sale or rent, according even to the official figures.[3]There were 15,993 mortgage foreclosures in the city in 2013;

Bloomberg News[1] headlined the fact:

FORECLOSURES SURGING IN NEW YORK-NEW JERSEY MARKET.

Community Land Trusts may have a significant effect on New York City’s housing crisis, may affect struggling and even prospering neighborhoods, may achieve significant savings in the city’s budget for housing while increasing the afford housing supply for families in trouble. But their long term impact may go further, and be a transformative new way of looking at the housing market and its limits, and model the way it can best function to serve the needs of all the city’s resident.

 

The federal government has, in its fashion, responded to such problems; New York City has the highest number of public housing unit, owned and managed, and maintained (in niggardly fashion) by the New York City Housing Authority itself. New York State has, if reluctantly, permitted the city to establish limits on the rents that can be charged for a declining portion of the city’s large renal stock. Mayor Bloomberg responded by pushing for extensive new construction of units, with a minor allocation to those most in need. Mayor de Blasio has put forward an extensive and expensive new housing plan that envisages 200,000 new units, and more, in the next 10 years.

 

But of course, when we say “New York City has a housing problem,” hat does not mean everyone in the city has a problem. The New York Real Estate Board holds that the real estate market has rebounded from the bursting of bubble that the industry, with the active encouragement of the financial sector, itself produced so recently. Rents going up are good news for landlords, if bad for tenants.[5] Mortgage foreclosures by banks and other financial institutions provide opportunities for big operators to buy up homes at a bargain, throwing home owners willy-nilly onto the rental market, shattering hopes of accumulating wealth by investing in “asset building” in a housing market sure only to go up, not down. At the same time, a Rent Stabilization Board makes sure rent regulation won’t prevent landlords from covering the costs when they go, protecting the profits from their investments, regardless of whether that means their tenants chances of meeting their basic needs are widely jeopardized. Talk of inequality!

 

A tiny new non-profit, called NYCCLI, somewhat incongruously pronounceable as “nicely,” the New York City Community Land Initiative,has just been incorporated in New York. What does it hope to offer to deal with this situation? Quite a bit, it turns out. NYCCLI’s formal incorporation papers describe it purpose as “advocating for community land trusts.”

 

And what is a community land trust? A community land trust is a trust that typically owns land, on which the housing unit or units are leased, for 99 years, to a limited equity co-op which provides homes for households, typically lower to moderate income, who occupy the buildings as members of such a co-op and have all the rights a home owners would have except for the right to sell the unit at a profit. Their sales price is set by a formula approved by the trust, typically permitting recovering the purchase price plus improvements plus some cost-of-living adjustment, but excluding the value of the land, which of course remains with the trust. The trust that owns the land also sets some basic rules for its use, basically to ensure that the housing on it will be permanently available to household who need it at the most affordable rents possible. The board that runs the trust is typically composed 1/3 each of residents of it housing, residents of its neighborhood, and supporters, who may come from government, advocacy groups, or technical experts who may be helpful to the trust. [6]

 

What good are community land trusts? They have four major advantages:

 

First, they make possible the creation of affordable housing on a permanent basis, especially for lower income households. CLTs make a key trade-off: they give up the possibility of speculating on an abnormal increase in the dollar value of the home in return for the security of knowing there is no threat of loss if housing prices go down and no danger of eviction if the cost of occupancy become unaffordable because of job loss or ill health or other circumstances beyond a household’s ability to control. And unlike almost all currently existing affordable housing programs, if a community land trust receives public subsidy, its benefits remain permanently available to their targeted low/moderate income recipients, and do not expire after a fixed time period of 20 or 30 or 40 years, and costs for such future residents have been permanently fixed to exclude any increases in the speculative value of the unit.

 

 

Second, community land trusts build communities and stabilize neighborhoods. They provide for deeply democratic management of their housing. By having not only residents but also neighbors and supporters from the wider community on their boards, they can provide diversity, establish priorities for expenditures, achieve efficiencies of scale, and put the strength of the trust behind individual members falling on hard times

 

Third, community land trusts represent a whole new approach to the principles governing the way housing is distributed, occupied, and used in a democratic society, limiting the intensity of the inequality induced by a private market which sees housing as a commodity to be bought and sold for its exchange value, for the profit it may produce, instead of for the needs it may satisfy, its social use value. NYCCLI’s approach can help change housing from a symbol and magnifier of inequality to address at least in part one of inequality’s main causes.

 

But fourth, and in the long run perhaps most important, they can be transformative.

 

Community land trusts challenge the arrangements of a housing market used to the pleasures and pains of speculating on housing value, which is, economically, fundamentally speculating on the value of a given location, and instead see housing as a necessity of a decent life and a supportive environment for all. And they provide the same opportunity for “wealth creation” or “asset building” as does buying a house with a mortgage and paying off the mortgage: put the equivalent of what is put into paying off the mortgage principal and interest on the land into a savings account or other good investment, and you have the accumulation with perhaps even less risk. Putting this together, they can move from seeing housing as a commodity, valued for its exchange value, the profit it can produce, and see it rather as a necessity of life, even perhaps up to a certain configuration as a public good.

 

The different tenures of housing and the legal and financial relationships householders have to the housing they occupy have major implications for the way people live. Community land trusts can provide a form of home ownership for a resident that combines the privacy and security and insulation of the American Dreams’ single family suburban house with the solidarity and support and social richness of the ideal urban life-style. Immediately, to reach the lowest income groups, they will need some public support for acquisition or basic running costs, and they richly deserve such support.[7] In the long run, transformatively, they can benefit not only their residents but the neighborhoods and the housing system

 

[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-26/foreclosures-climaxing-in-new-york-new-jersey-market-mortgages.html

[2] Censusscope, available at http://www.censusscope.org/us/rank_dissimilarity_white_black.html

[3] The Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy Survey for 2011,. The count by Picture the Homeless suggests a significantly higher figure.

[4] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-02-26/foreclosures-climaxing-in-new-york-new-jersey-market-mortgages.html

[5] The Real Estate Board summarizes:

“,,,notable gains this quarter, as compared to the second quarter of 2013, included: the 19-percent-increase in the average sales price for all homes in Brooklyn to $715,000; the 15-percent-boost in coop sales in Queens; and the 13-percent-increase in the average sales price for a coop in New York City to $768,000. The residential market in Manhattan also remained strong with the average sales price for all homes increasing by six percent to $1,491,000 year-over-year” http://www.rebny.com/content/rebny/en/newsroom/press-releases/2014/REBNY_2014_2Q_Report_Improving_Economy_Drives_Residential_Sales.html

[6] Detailed information is available from the national Community Trust Network, whose website, at http://cltnetwork.org/, contans extensive references to further materials, as do NYCCLI’s own educational materials.

[7] And remember the enormous subsidy that inures disproportionately to higher income households from the mortgage interest deduction in our income tax system.

Posted in Critical Theory, Gentrfication, Housing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments