Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Given that the conservative responses to unjust inequality essentially accept its existence, that the liberal  does something to ameliorate the results of unjust inequalities but does not address their causes, and that the progressive response does even more, but both within  severe limits that leave the production of such inequalities essentially untouched, and finally given that radical responses, although  they do address the causes of unjust inequality, are not  on the real world agenda anywhere in the world today, what can be nevertheless be done to achieve a more desirable handling of issues of equality than  our present system presents?

The suggestion here is to push for actions that are immediately possible, but that point transformatively to the more radical proposals necessary to eradicate unjust inequalities.. At least four modest but theoretically promising types of efforts in that direction are already under way, although their transformative potential is not always stressed: 1) transformative electoral activities; 2) transformative demands in the active day-to-day political arena; 3) transformative  pilot projects attempting to model in limited practice solutions  that would be radical if comprehensively adopted; and 4) transformative educational efforts involving teaching , research, writing, public debates, on the real sources of unjust  inequalities and the possible steps to their eradication – and the development of theory. These might be considered four fronts in the effort to tackle the unjust inequalities that characterize our present societies.

1)      Transformative electoral activities.

The progressive democratic-socialist campaign of Bernie Sanders for the presidency in the United States would be an example. If it is seen simply as a normal campaign for the election of a particular individual with a particular attractive platform, it may have limited impact, and may not survive a likely electoral loss. If the electoral campaign is seen as accompanied by a political revolution, as its rhetoric in fact proclaims is necessary, it points to broader and deeper issues, and opens the door to consideration of radical possibilities going beyond the progressive.

Historically , the record of radically-oriented national election campaigns  has not been good, although they have a long tradition behind them, just this  century, the Socialist Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, The Progressive Party, Jesse Jackson’s campaign, all had very limited influence.  Today, the Working Families Party is active in electoral campaigns in some states, but it remains small. In crass political terms, the experience seems to be that the more radical the platform the less effective the electoral impact. Efforts are beginning to evolve to have the Sanders campaign itself lead to some type of on-going organized involvement both in future elections and/or in current political issues. Whether it will be an exception to the rule remains to be seen.

2)      Transformative demands in the active day-to-day political arena

The individual issues that are fought over in any even formally democratic society usually center on specific concerns, but may or may not be seen as parts of more fundamental societal arrangements, and may then, very much context dependent, have a transformative impact.  The criticism of the role of money in political campaigns could point to a full public funding of campaigns, with limits on private money going far beyond simple calls for transparency. Calls for a $15 minimum wage may open the door to an on-going push for a livable wage and beyond, to a truly equitable distribution of compensation for work done, and minimums set on the basis of an expanded definition of what such a wage should provide. Single-payer insurance provision to cover the cost of health care could raise the question of whether health care should not from the get-go be free, not provided on a fee-for-service basis but as a public good, as basic public education is provided, or police or fire protection or the building of streets and highways. Modest proposals for participatory budgeting could raise the question of whether all budgeting decisions could not be made with grass-roots democratic involvement. Support for the creation of Community Land Trusts as owners of land could raise the question of simple public ownership of all land, as a natural resource.[1]

Keeping Liberal and Progressive proposals expanded to their radical fullest regularly in sight, while still getting ones hands dirty in the struggles to achieve what can be done day –too-day, would be a way of making many existing political efforts not only more appealing in the present but also transformative to what might be done in the future to fully end unjust inequality.

3)      Transformative pilot projects attempting to model radical alternatives.

The history of utopian communities is extensive and rich. They are rare today. But the attempt to try out radical ideas on a limited scale, with the transformative goal in mind of leading to their wide-spread and comprehensive adoption, remains important. Indeed, utopian thinking and puzzling out what ideal cities or countries or neighborhoods might look like is an exercise that might be more important now than ever, now that any new idea is likely to be met with the charge that nothing like that has ever been done before, where’s the data to support it, let’s stick to doing things that we know can be done in the world that we have, not the world we want. In limited practice, solutions that seem utopian might in fact be tested and shown to work on a small scale, and would be very radical if comprehensively adopted. The work of Gar Alperovitz and the Democracy Project,[2] and the New Economy efforts, are provocative. Learning from such efforts could indeed be transformative on the way to broader change.

But there are severe limits to most pilot models, involving, viability today in the here and now. Dangers lie in the context of a competitive profit-driven society, with constant down-ward pressures on wage to maintain financial viability. Even short-term, internal democracy in e.g. co-ops, and more, may end up at risk. And how the transition might be made from pilot project to its broader environment. The  temptation and often apparent necessity of building fortified silos of justice in a desert of unjust inequality  to broad social change is under-discussed.[3], [4] Pilot models are a good and helpful step towards a just and equal society, but do not inevitably lead us there.

4)      Educational efforts and the development of theory.

Most of those reading tis blog, and certainly its writer, have not been brought to concerns about the unjust inequalities discussed in these blogs by their own material deprivation, by the kinds of physical exploitation and immiseration that classic images of revolutionary subjects evoke. As this is written, The New York Times headlines a front-page story about “How the G.O.P Elites Lost the Party’s Base” and describes how “Working Class Voters Felt Ignored by Republican Leaders.” The Republican Party having deserted its “traditional blue-collar working class base—“its “most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans.”[5] The descriptions set conventional social theory about class relations on its head.  But it reflects a current reality: the wide gap between undying material relationships of class and power, on the one hand, and the ideological interpretations and their psychological reflections that characterize so many political disagreements and rationalize the unjust inequalities that we see today. It is a gap that is ideologically, in the broad sense of the term, created, and it requires ideological counters if there is to be any hope of serious social change.

Ideological efforts to confront unjust inequalities have two aspects: one involving educational work, the other theoretical work.

Education is a somewhat awkward term for public information or savvy use of the media to tell a story, to convince readers or listeners or watchers, to convey the news in critical depth, to undo prejudices and stereotypes analyse conventional wisdoms. It may involve letters to the editor, journal articles, phone calls, panels, or, research, funded or not.

Theoretical work overlaps with the educational somewhat, but has a different audience and somewhat different audience: It may be educational, in the above sense, but it is also directed at those already concerned and active, and involve itself in clarify cause and effect relationships as a guide to strategy and tactics in ideological/political confrontations. Research of course has standard of logic and fact-finding that are necessary for credible work, but in the choice of subject matter and willingness to draw conclusions relevant to issues of equality that radical research show its usefulness. As the social psychological processes of one-dimensionalization grow in importance, the counter processes of logical analysis and exposure become ever more important.


Transformative might thus be the name of such blended proposals aimed at dealing with unjust inequality in a politically feasible fashion. . It would characterize ideas, demands, program proposals, legislative actions, social movement demands, which would marshal political power behind immediate demands for liberal or progressive measures coupled with a consistent and open consideration of the political feasibility of forwarding the goals of the Radical approach and building the foundation for struggles for radical action

A Transformative approach would add a recurring footnote, as explicit as the political situation will allow, to Liberal and Progressive demands. It can help to maintain awareness of the depth of the problem of Unjust Inequality and of the need for each individual program and proposal to recognize that the ultimate goal is actually the elimination of Unjust Inequality altogether. It can help keep pressure on the arc of history to bend ever more towards social justice and just equality..


ds Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.


[1] For further examples of potentially transformative demands , see my Blog #30: Beyond Immediate Proposals: Some Transformative Provocations

[2] See and Gar Alperovitz “The Question of Socialism (and Beyond!) Is About to Open Up in These United States”, April 13, 2013 Truth out News Analysis

[3] For my own views of the potentials and limits of the pilot project approach see Marcuse, Peter. 2015 “Cooperatives on the Path to Socialism?” Monthly Review, vol. 66, No. 9, February, pp. 31-38

[4] For a further discussion, see also Blog# 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands

[5] March 28, p. 1.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.


Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

A Radical response, in a traditional fully socialist view, would approach inequality in a quite different way. It would define unjust inequality not in terms of the quantitative mal-distribution of the wealth of society but in terms of the source of that mal-distribution, economically in the exploitation of labor by capital (which includes the maintenance of unemployment to create a “reserve army of the poor” at the bottom to buttress the power of employers), and politically in the oppression of the ruled by the rulers.  The injustice of inequality lies, in the Radical view, not in the quantitative dimensions of inequality, as in Piketty, or simply in the harm to those at the bottom, as in the Liberal view, to be dealt with by anti-poverty programming.The injustice  lies in how the mal-distribution of wealth and incomes came about in the first place — David Harvey formulates it that it was largely acquired  by the dispossession of the 99% by the 1% to begin with. Yet the Progressive view generally focuses simply in the quantitative differences in wealth and power per se, which are self-reinforcing and must be countered together. In the Radical view, by contrast, the injustice stems from the source of those differences: the actions of those at the top in depriving those at the bottom of the share of the common wealth which in a just society they should have.

Taking some of the wealth of the rich and using it for the poor is thus just, but it is not enough; it does not address the source of that wealth, the conduct of the 1% that created the inequality to begin with. Redistribution is a remedy that only ameliorates the consequences after the damage is done; it doesn’t prevent the damage. Ironically, it has similarities to the criminal justice system: it punishes the guilty and compensates the victims, but it doesn’t address the causes of crime.  It is fair, or, indeed, by definition, just, but it assumes the structural arrangements of the society in which it exists, in which exploitation and oppression are legally permitted, in fact essential parts of the system, if subject to some limits.  In the Radical view a revolution is needed really to address the structures that support unjust inequality, including such aspects as the definition and enforcement of property rights in the economic system and electoral arrangements in the political system that limit participatory democracy or render it ineffective. Radically, the argument goes.  A revolution is needed which continually seeks to end exploitation and oppression and regulate the conduct which creates them, going beyond simple amelioration of the unjust inequality which they quantitatively produce.

The Radical response to quantitative  inequality  is to seek it sources in the structures of the status quo, and to pursue an economic as well as political revolution to limit inequality only to just inequality.

The kinds of goals a radical/socialist answer to inequality might lead to might include (for suggestive purposes only!):

  • A guaranteed annual income to all, at a standard commensurate with the real capacities of the productive system, perhaps something above today’s Average Metropolitan Income;
  • Either direct government or non-profit voluntary private responsibility for the production of the goods and services minimally required for that standard of living;
  • Nationalization of all major productive enterprises, with compensation limited to non-financialized values or less;
  • Confinement of profit-motivated activities to minor production of goods and service over and above the necessary , and for research and development above that level;
  • A sharply progressive to confiscatory tax on incomes and wealth over some socially defined ceiling;
  • Education at all necessary social levels public and guaranteed free, above that voluntarily undertaken;
  • Cessation of productions of all munitions;
  • Procedures for fully participatory and democratic decision-making at all levels of public action, with public support for the necessary implementation;
  • Environmental standards set and implemented at levels to maintain fully sustainable levels of desired health for all;
  • Recognition that the unjust inequalities produced by exploitation and oppression are linked together, and must be treated as a whole, and the process of undoing them must be comprehensive in scope and depth;

And, importantly:

  • The issue of unjust inequality would then simply disappear, because, with all having enough for a really fulfilling life and limits established on wasteful excesses of privatized wealth, the incentive to exploit or oppress, would imply disappear, and there would be  no reason for concern s about  comparative incomes or wealth that logically fuel current concerns about inequality.

These are obviously utopian goals, and practically relevant only in so far as they may provide a standard for evaluating the desirability of pursing specific realistically achievable goals. But to thinking through and visualizing alternatives to the existing along the above lines – playing with reality-based alternatives  for an ideal society, as was common in critical parts of human history in the past but has virtually disappeared from today’s intellectual or artistic life, might indeed be a generally  welcome development .

In the context of the present presidential electoral campaign in the United States, no major figure would espouse such goals, but neither would any explicitly defend the level of quantitative inequality that exists today. The more moderate wing of the Republican Party and the more conservative side of the Democratic Party espouse a Liberal approach, differing from each other mostly in the extent of its implementation. The further left voices in the Democratic Party lay claim to a Progressive response, in rhetoric sometimes similar to that of the Radical, but pragmatically toned down, so that revolution is spoken as reform of the political system, not in basic economic structures.

Politically, on the electoral campaign the view on the Republican side is conservative and the existing inequality, if acknowledged at all, is not seen as a major problem.

On the Democratic side the Liberal position is widely seen as desirable in principle but subject to a touchy debate to be resolved by compromise in realistic political terms;

The Progressive position is seen to have significant popular support, but unlikely to gather enough political momentum to be implementable to the extent necessary;

The Radical position is not seriously considered, however idealistically it may be discussed at the fringes of present realities, and espousing it may in fact weaken even serious Liberal and Progressive attempts at change.

A different response is needed. Blog # 81e – Other Forms of Radical Responses: Towards a Transformative Approach to Unjust Inequality, will suggest a possible step toward such a different response.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.




Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

 Blog #81c – From Clinton  Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Hillary Clinton’s over-all approach could be seen as a major example of the liberal approach  to inequality, (see Blog #81b), and  Bernie Sanders’ could then be seen  is well on what might be called  the progressive side of liberal, although  stopping short of something more radical (see Blog #81d, forthcoming.). The Liberal and the Progressive share most of the same values, but differ in their political approaches, which I believe leads also to differences in the analysis used to undergird them. The Clinton Liberal approach aims at forming a broad coalition that would move towards consensus by minimizing areas of disagreement and conflict, seeking a practical majoritarian compromise on the liberal side of key disputes. The Sanders progressive approach is more confrontational, seeking a more populist base, and accepts the necessity to confront sharp clashes of interest in achieving its objectives.

Strategically, the Clinton liberal position hopes to avoid direct and painful confrontation with the prevailing structures of power, and hopes to redress unjust inequalities in the system through progressively oriented accommodation with those in power; on the radical side of progressive, the Sanders position is willing to attack the holders of power directly in moving towards the goal of reducing inequality. The liberal view focuses on lifting the lower 99%; seeing redistribution from the top 1% as a simply a means to that end; the progressive view also addresses the disparity between the 1% and the 99%, but sees it as per se unjust and needing redress at both ends. Higher taxes on the rich are seen as a means to help the poor, in the liberal view; in the progressive view, they are also seen as a way of remedying a fundamental unjust inequality. Whether the difference in political strategy leads to a difference in in analysis, or vice versa, in not an easily resolvable or particularly useful debate.

The Progressive response thus accepts the liberal proposals but goes further. It sees gross economic inequality, measured in terms of wealth and income, as being per se unjust. It agrees that poverty should be addressed, but sees poverty as requiring redistribution from the rich to the poor. Higher taxes on the rich are needed not only to keep the middle class safely in the middle and the poor above harmful poverty, but they are also needed  because the extreme wealth of the rich is itself unjust, unjustly acquired by inheritance or exploitation or oppression or pure luck, and it is socially just to reduce it. The quantitatively measured  inequality that we see today is wrong not only because it means the poverty of the poor at the bottom but also because it is linked to the immoral power of the rich, with the top 1% now controlling more wealth than all the bottom households (the bottom 50% or more; the figures vary) taken together. The wealth of the 1% needs to be used to achieve a just and sustainable equality.

Revolution is called for by some progressives, including Sanders, but on the political side as reforms to the electoral processes, and in the end the called-for measures on the two sides differ more in language and in extent than in basic values. A higher minimum wage is supported by both, although both implicitly agree that it can not be so high as to interfere with a reasonable profitability for businesses or entrepreneurship. Abolition of the wage relationship is not suggested by either, nor a recasting of the governmental role in the economy. Public regulation is seen on the liberal side as basically an undesirable necessity to be limited as far as possible; on the progressive side, it is accepted as inevitably needed and an extension of democracy. Redistribution is centrally involved in both; higher taxes are the conventional means to that end. Exploitation is inevitable, but can be moderated. Non-economic unjust inequality is wrong, but a large part of that inequality will disappear if economic inequality is addressed. Everyone in society will not agree to that solution; the rich will object to supporting the poor at their expense. Liberals believe it can and should be reasonably compromised; progressives see consensus as thus not likely, unanimity not achievable; conflict as inevitable

To generalize, the liberal response seeks to address quantitatively measured inequality at the distribution end, after it has been created in the economy, and sees such change as feasible through the existing political processes. The progressive response to quantitatively measured inequality is to address its unjust production in the economy, but within the basic structures of the existing economy, and sees political revolution as the necessary path to undermine that unjustly created inequality.

A radical response would go even further, and seek fundamental changes in existing economic structures. Since such changes do not seem to be imminent in most of the world today, a transformative approach might be a realistic way forward today (See #blog81 d and e , forthcoming).


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81b: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal?

The debate on the Democratic side in the United States election campaign has seemed at times to be between  answers addressing, on the one said , economic inequality (held to be Bernie Sanders view) and on the other, racial and ethnic disparities (Black Lives Matter often taken to hold that view, and Hillary Clinton’s frequent emphasis). The answer of course depends on the analysis of the problem. If the suggestion of Blog #81a is accepted, that the key definition of unjust inequality, defined in the economic terms of wealth and income, lies in whether or not it arises from the economic, political, and social relations of exploitation and oppression within the society, then that analysis might be applied as well to the issue of unjust non-economic inequalities between black and white, “native” born and immigrant, men and women, religious majorities and minorities, non-conformists generally.

In fact, relations of exploitation and oppression, economic and non-economic inequality, are historically opposite sides of the same coin. As to “race,” slavery of course combined both oppression with exploitation; the attitudes to immigrants does so as well, if in different legal and social ways. The clear disparities in women’s and men’s wages are linked to patterns of sexist treatment that is both economic  and social/cultural,  and patterns of social behavior , such as are embodied in religious codes as well as sexual and gender-related attitudes, play a role in supporting economic structures  as well.[1]

In looking for answers, then, for concrete policies, programs, strategies to rectify these twin economic and non-economic problems, the key is to understand them as linked, parts of a single pattern, and examine proposed answers with those linkages I mind.  Looking at the details of conservative as opposed to liberal as opposed to radical current answers illustrates the point.

The conservative response is that inequality should not be a concern.. Conservatives essentially see economic inequalities as both inevitable and necessary. They defend quantitative inequality because greater wealth or income is the result of differences in effort or ability, or a reward for innovation and hard work; end inequality, and you take away the incentives for an individual to work hard and use the abilities they have to contribute to prosperity and growth. The poor are poor because they have lesser abilities, and it is only poverty or its threat that makes them enter the labor market at all, where they are needed to do the unskilled work that needs to be done. If the market at any point requires less unskilled work  than there are  unskilled workers, that’s too bad, but charity requires that they not be left to starve to death on the streets, but they should not be helped to such an extent that their incentive to work disappears. Inequality is thus the inevitable accompaniment of different natural capabilities, and enforcing equality unfairly penalizes those with greater capabilities, who deserve to have more than less capable others.

For conservatives economic inequalities are  directly linked to and justified by non-economic inequalities: lesser pay for  women explained by sexist views of their work, lower pay for African-Americans by weaker work habits or value  systems, unconcern for living wages for  immigrants by  a logical market reaction to their greater “willingness ” to accept work undesired by natives. Other non-economic inequalities arise from differences in treatment that are experienced as oppressive and painful by African-Americans , women (both married and unmarried, n different and overlapping ways), LGBT individuals, foreigners speaking other languages as their native tongue, some artists, non-conformity of all sorts, are admittedly unequal in the conservative view, but the difference is explained as a matter of voluntary  choice of life style, and Its solution is simply adaptation by those subject to harm to more dominant patterns of behavior. Those not conforming to middle-class values in their behavior are not entitled to claims for equal treatment, and may be forcibly repressed, through police action and incarceration, if they do not behave.  And all-together, the pressure for life-style conformity, even if leading to obvious unjust inequality, is part of that societal pattern accepted as desirable and functional for society, even if criticized as one-dimensional by others. Dealing with non-economic inequality would necessitate government interference in “private” matters, and that is in principle to be minimized. The answer thus is simply to make the system function smoothly, but not to disturb it by artificially countering inequality.

It is a solution that can be made to sound acceptable to a significant part of the population, and will have substantial resources behind its propagation.

The Liberal response (in the current Democratic debates highlighted by Hillary Clinton) recognizes the existence of economic inequalities of wealth and income, but focuses on non-economic inequalities.

In addressing economic inequalities, its answers are to improve incomes and wealth at the bottom of the scale, leaving the top untouched. The response is based on a social morality which objects to gross inequality that relegates some to living in abject poverty for no fault of their own, and finds the answer in alleviating that poverty. The causes of economic inequality are not dealt with, nor are the benefits of exploitation challenged. The argument is perhaps that there is no reason to object to inequality if no one is hurt by it. If all at the bottom have enough for a decent standard of living, why shouldn’t the rich be richer than they? The answer thus lies in  anti-poverty programs, with a focus on who the poor are, how to help them get ahead with education for jobs and careers, if they are doing their best then to support them with subsidies up to the point where all, regardless of natural capabilities, achieve some minimum  standard of living. Morally the rich should act charitably to help the poor, but the fault that creates poverty lies not in their riches, but in the stars, or in the incapacities of the poor, or in the important economic laws that produce prosperity but inevitably have unequal results for some, with results that should be countered by help from the general funds of society. The goal is not reduce inequality per se, but to put a safety net under the poor, to end poverty. The whole society should agree to such a moral goal, in the Liberal view.

The argument that quantitative inequality is unjust because it is morally unfair to the middle class is a different formulation of this approach, perhaps politically more appealing than a purely moral approach because more people identify as middle class than a poor. But that response develops a line between the middle class and the rest of society, the poor and those who, in non-economic life  style ways, are non-conformists, do not share “middle class values” or patterns of behavior , including, for instance gender relationships.. The concern is that the middle class families are slipping out of the middle and into the bottom, and to help them with governmental support, perhaps low-interest loans to encourage their entrepreneurship, labor laws that prohibit unhealthy working conditions, sick leave, rationalized and partially subsidized health care, and expanded skill-oriented higher education. etc. Conformity to middle class values is demanded of recipients of such benefits, but those not conforming may be helped by carefully moderated measures to come into conformity.[2] The response assumes an essentially normal and inevitable quantitative economic and qualitative non-economic inequality to be natural, and seeks to ameliorate it after it has occurred, in the distribution of its results, rather than dealing with the causes that produce it. Consistent with a Liberal analysis, it addresses the wealth of the top only gingerly, by non-confiscatory taxes on the rich only to the level needed to pay for ameliorative support for the endangered members of the middle class and poor. Answers do not question whether the acquisition of wealth by the rich is a cause of the lesser wealth of the middle and poor. And the taxes on the rich must also be kept moderate, because it is assumed that the rich are needed to provide jobs for the middle and poor, and too high taxes would reduce their incentives to do that.

Thus the Liberal response to inequality is to address it only at the bottom and middle of the distribution of wealth, leaving both the political and the economic structures that have created the inequality at the top modified but essentially intact. But it is a solution that might find consensus support among a large part, if not a majority, of the population.


This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[1] A whole field of sociology explores these relationships , with the Frankfurt School’s critiques , and particularly Herbert Marcuse’s work, One-Dimensional Man and other writings , being (in my vulnerably objective opinion) prime examples ,.

[2] Even if there is no agreement on what such conformity-inducing measures might be. A recent overview of a dominant paradigm of the 19650’s came from the Moynihan Report of 1965, which found that “Almost One-Fourth of Negro Families are Headed by Females,” “which seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.” Yet a provocative article by Eduardo Porter in the NYTimes, Wednesday Feb. 3, 2016, pp. B1&7, essentially argues that the problem is basically economic, not marital: better-off single  women have fewer problems than poor ones, and their children do better, but poor married women are no better off than their single sisters. Adding money does more for the children than adding a male (my summary).

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality


Inequality today is usually equated with the extent of the gap between the 1% and the 99% that that the Occupy movement brought to public attention, or that Bernie Sanders highlights in properly criticizing the distribution of wealth and income in the United States. But this is a mischievously facile definition of inequality. Some inequalities are in fact fair, and result from differences in talent, physical strength, luck, and commendable effort. Gross disparities are a vivid indicator of a problem, but do not draw attention to its causes, which lie in critical social, economic, and political relationships,. To focus on the gap itself and to address it with remedial measures aimed at narrowing its extent detracts attention from those causes.[i]

 Just and Unjust  Inequality: Why the Difference Matters

Equality and inequality are deceptively simple concepts. In the modern era they came into prominence with the French revolutionary slogan of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,[ii] where equality meant political and legal equality, equality of “rights,” equality in relation to the state, as it did in the United States  Declaration of Independence’s “All men are created equal” as to “certain inalienable rights.” [iii] Rights to the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of Man Equality did not mean equality in incomes or wealth or in the distribution of goods and services, which were seen as dependent on equality of legal and political rights, Equality in material distribution of material goods was seen as a concomitant of social justice, not its center.

Comparing equality as a goal to justice as a goal[iv]  brings the realization that not all inequality is unjust. Not all differences are unjust. There is natural inequality, of physical and mental capacities: not all humans are of the same height or weight or prowess, not all are the equals of Einstein or Jacki Robinson or Martin Luther King. We consider some inequality in the distribution of wealth and power fair: it may derive from natural inequalities, it may be earned by hard work, or by social contribution, what Piketty calls the common utility, or be justified by different needs. In some cases unjust inequalities may be built on natural or earned “not-unjust ” inequalities, but their extreme extent then built on power, part of their wealth earned, another part not: Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Thomas Edison? Jeff Bezoz?  There is a balancing involved. Granted a Hollywood star or tennis champion or skilled artisan deserves to earn more than the average, how much more is just? A tricky question, but the answer can be one produced through democratic processes, and would, for instance, lead to decisions as to how progressive the tax structure should be. Similarly, a person who is ill, or suffering from a disability, or is limited by conditions end his or her control, might be entitled to more governmental support than the average, and again at what levels is an appropriate subject for democratic decision-making, leading to decisions as to the levels of welfare benefits reimbursement for health care expenses, and so forth.[v]

There is thus “just inequality” and “unjust inequality.” How does one generalize the difference?

What Is The Key Difference?

Inequality is unjust,[vi] I propose, if it derives from the exercise of power used for the exploitation or oppression of one person or group by another. The resulting distribution of goods and  services, of wealth and income , the gap between the 1% and 99% is unjust, not because of its size, but because of its origins. What is “just” is then a matter that is socially defined – Rawls’ definition of justice or fairness could be useful, what would be decided by people acting behind a “veil of ignorance” as to their own position.

The results of not-unjust inequalities in the distribution of goods and services can then e countered by appropriate public policies of redistribution of those goods and services, e.g. by taxes or public provision.

But the results of unjust inequalities need to be addressed at their source in the social, political, and economic relations among individuals and groups which skew the distribution of goods and services, and result from the skewed distribution of power.  Acting on the results of just-inequalities can be guided by democratic procedures, debates on over values, the use of reason. Acting on the results of unjust-inequalities necessarily involves dealing with the distribution of power, and durable consensus of those benefiting from unjust inequality with those suffering from it should not be expected, and should not be an aim of public policy.

Justice is a moral formulation for the prevention of unjust inequalities. Politically, dealing with all forms of inequality, just and unjust alike, through redistribution of their results is can be done by consensus reforms, and should be facilitated by democracy. But dealing with the bases for unjust inequalities likely requires more radical politics. This may be the difference between Hilary Clinton’s and Bernie Saunders’ in the political campaigns of the moment.[vii]

The issues around inequality are complex for practice, as well as theoretically challenging; the answers make a significant difference in matters of immediate policy as well as in philosophy and world outlook.


[i] For striking examples, see my Blog #48 Writing about Inequality, at

[ii] The 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of the Right of Man begins with: “art. 1. Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” [] considers egalite in terms of legal equality and merit-based entry to government (art. 6): [The law] “must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in its eyes, shall be equally eligible to all high offices, public positions and employments, according to their ability, and without other distinction than that of their virtues and talents.”

[iii] “…all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”

[iv] As Susan Fainstein does in The Just City, for example, in a wide-ranging discussion. Fainstein, Susan. 2010. The Just City. Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, P.   36ff.

[v] Rawls definition of justice or fairness as what would be decided by people acting behind a veil of ignorance as to their own position is I believe consistent with this approach.

[vi] Piketty uses a definition, benefitting most those most in need, akin to Rawls’ definition of justice, But he writes that fuller discussion of the meaning of justice is beyond the scope of his tome, and it is well beyond  the scope of this essay.

[vii] This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

Blog #80 – Mandatory Inclusionary Housing and Zoning: the Good and the Bad

Mandatory Inclusionary Housing: MIH, the Good and the Bad

MIH is an approach to ameliorating housing problems, and it lays an important role in city planning and zoning. It generally permits denser and higher new private development in areas zoned for it, but it requires  developers to set aside a given percentage of the new units for housing affordable  by families of lower income, essentially paid for by the profits of the new market rate housing also allowed. It combines zoning and planning policy with housing policy; both aspects need to be considered in any careful evaluation.

The housing part: A housing system that does not provide adequate decent safe and sanitary housing for all citizens is wrong. It hurts the most vulnerable sections of our society; it is the exact opposite of what Rawls calls the second principle of Justice:[1] it discriminates against those already the least advantaged, those already suffering from hardships in employment, in education, in health care, in finance. And it inevitably overlaps with discrimination on racial and ethnic grounds.

The fact that the effect of discrimination is produced by the market is no excuse for allowing it.[2] Wealth is unequally divided in our society; there is no conceivable moral justification for some acquiring billions and others being homeless; we are rich enough to house everyone, in decent, safe, and sanitary units. Allowing billionaires to play a wildly disproportionate role in politics, and thus in government, in the social decisions that we make through government, permitting them to act in their own self-interest rather than letting government act on behalf of all of us and be guided by a decision-making process that is fully informed and democratic, makes the injustice of a profit-based market housing system even worse.

Mandatory inclusionary zoning can be an effective tool to deal with the injustices of such  a purely market-driven system of producing and allocating housing. I would commend the mayor and HPD for pursing it, and making it an important component of an overall approach to the problem of housing.

But MIH fails if it is distorted to serve as an excuse for segregation and functions by enabling displacement under cover of serving social justice. That’s not a criticism of MIH as such; it’s a criticism of it us without considering it role in the wider task of community–based planning and development. MIH plays this perverse role in two ways:

  1. Who is included in the inclusionary part? If it is a program that makes sure that those earning a million a year are include in every enclave of billionaires, that could be called “inclusionary” too, but not what this is intended to be about by its advocates, and I believe not what the Mayor or HPD intend either. The abstract debate about whether those targeted for inclusion are those at 30% of AMI, or 20%, or 10%, is not quibbling about numbers, it is of the heart of the matter. It calls for thoughtfulness, for a recognition of political realities, for some careful analysis of needs and resources, but it seems clear to me that, given where we are, the lower the income groups served and the higher the proportions required to be included, the better. The perfect may be pragmatically the enemy of the good in political negotiations, but the direction of good public policy must be to move as close to the perfect answer as we can get.
  1. Where and how MIH is used is the second major issue in the program — in addition to the issue of numeric income limits and proportions – and the two are linked. It is a program intended by is advocates to act against discrimination , to help those excluded from decent housing because of their incomes and their jobs, or the lack of jobs, or by their  race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or religions, from a decent housing in a decent environment, those discriminated against by the functioning of the housing market enforced throughout by government, through its courts and judicial system, its environmental regulations and their presence and absence, through  public investments or disinvestment in physical infrastructure  and social  MIH can promote segregation as well  as integration. The devil knows that too.

Segregation is a form of discrimination. It restricts opportunities, inhibits broad diversity and its benefits, defines the opportunities it provides for community solidarity negatively, by indicating what cannot be done, by whom, with whom, rather than enabling a broad social concept of community as embracing the broad range of the society. MIH, if it is not undertaken in a community -sensitive and spatially-planned way, opens the door to the G word, Gentrification. Gentrification, over-simplified, is the displacement of poorer households by better -off ones, worsening the housing of those at the bottom for those closer to the top. The unregulated market will allow  those with the wealth and political resources to take over desirable locations in our cities that have been historically occupied by working class and poor families and turn them into higher income enclaves from which the or  have been expelled. If a MIH proposal is part of a zoning scheme in which gentrification is rationalized by requiring a smattering of those in need of housing to benefit from the displacement of many of their brethren and sisters, it produces that kind of segregation. Rezoning a particular area to allow more housing to be built in such fashion that the net proportion of higher income households is significantly increased in the community displaces families both on the parcels on which it is built and those priced out of the community by the impact of increased land values resulting from the new construction for the richer will further, not reduce, segregation as the net result.

And MIH will have a natural tendency to produce that result if it is not carefully structured to avoid it. The income levels fixed, the proportions allowed, the resulting net totals, the neighborhood effects, the social guidance of the market setting of rents and, the planning social facilities and social investments, re all involved here. The impacts of specific provisions will vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, from community to community, and should be undertaken with the greatest of care and the maximum of community input and decision-making – Rawls’ goals of social justice must be kept  in mind.[1] Diversity, for instance , has specific benefits in itself , in permitting mixing, mutual enrichment, solidarity and mutual support ; but diversifying public housing by introducing higher income household at the expense of those intended to be serve by it, with the result of benefiting higher over low-income families, is not  a just objective of public policy . Likewise with the allocation of public subsidies, using housing vouchers, etc., to facilitate inclusionary occupancy only when it is to the ultimate benefit of its developers and those in less need, is unjust.

MIH may be put forward as a painless no-displacement approach to rezoning empty or grossly technically underutilized land. But again it may be helping solve a housing problem at the cost of increasing segregation and in determining desired zoning and planning goals. The issue is not direct displacement, but secondary displacement: preventing families from moving into an area where they might otherwise find affordable housing and integrated housing by an upzoning that increases housing, specifically land, prices beyond their reach. That process is called secondary displacement, and advances segregation as much, if less visibly than, direct displacement.  Using MIH as part of an upzoning is better than having the upzoning without the MIH, but that’s hardly the only alternative. Good planning would evaluate a range of possibilities. One very promising approach, for instance, is the use of community land trusts or mutual housing associations as owners or decision-making entities of development, making the process of planning and implementation really democratic down to the neighborhood level. Further, the alternatives for any major proposal should be considered in the context of planning for the future of the city as a whole, where future commercial development might best be concentrated — or dispersed – whether the plan promotes or helps overcome the sharp divisions of the city with its internal boundaries of race, income, ethnicity, social status, gender.

In summary: Mandatory Inclusionary Housing, in the context of community-based planning, strengthening inclusionary communities democratically designed by and for those that government justly should serve, has great potential. But it must be carefully designed, both in its own details, incomes to be served, proportions to be reached, and in its broader context, the communities to be served, the planning into which it must be integrated. Depending on its design, it can go badly awry, or be a real instrument for progress in the social good.


The big picture:

In the best case scenario, Mandatory Inclusionary Housing can be a way of redistributing the benefits of the city’s growth  and sky-rocketing land values, which the city as a whole has created, not the individual land owners benefiting from it, , and letting the city’s people and their communities capture some of that increase in value. It does so in a way clearly meeting the very definition of justice, helping those least advantaged and reducing the advantages of their richer cousins.  Communities, and particularly those most need, can capture some of that socially created increases in land values through MIH. It redistributes from the more fully advantaged to the less advantaged, the very definition of justice. In less advantaged communities, MIH can make sure, given adequate, meaningful community control, that benefits and costs are fairly distributed. In more advantages communities. Think how different today’s suburbs or exclusionary enclaves would look if mandatory inclusionary zoning had been in effect when they were developed!


In the worst case scenario , mandatory inclusionary housing  can be a way of enriching developers and land owners by opening new opportunities for profit for them by building  market rate high rise highly profitable developments in upzoned “undervalued” neighborhoods, at the expense of displacement of families in need of housing , what’s called gentrification. Displacement follows, not only on the site of the new development, but secondary displacement also follows, where land in the newly developed parcels increases development prices in the surrounding neighborhood, putting some of it also out of reach both of its existing residents and of those under normal circumstances likely to move in but unable to at the new higher prices.  And the masters of the new developments can get away with it politically by raising the image of dong good through provision of a limited number of housing units to poorer people, some of whom might actually b those they themselves just displace,. or who might be useful for the rich to have nearby as nannies and cooks and chauffeurs and butlers. In both cases, there is a danger that, at the scale of the city, segregation may increase and, for lack of a comprehensive city-wide planning approach, the desired balance among uses, residential, commercial, manufacturing, public facilities, will be lost.

Even seemingly technical issues, like what % of Area Median Income defines households in need of “affordable“ housing, or what proportion on MIH units in a given development should  be market rate and what affordable, or seemingly procedural planning issues such as the strength of city-wide comprehensive planning and its relationship to community-based plans, and in what communities with what standards, can make the difference between the best case and the  worst case scenarios .



[1] that inequalities in society work to the benefit of the least advantaged

[2] In fair housing law, it is not only acts of intentional discrimination that are banned, but also those having the adverse effect of discrimination.