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;
- 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: