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 #64 – Alas Poor Hamlet – a review

Alas Poor Hamlet…
All great art is susceptible to many interpretations. That’s certainly true of Hamlet. But a recent staging in New York City 1. goes rather far to undermine Shakespeare‘s own reading of the story and presentation of it in the play he actually wrote. In Shakespeare’s presentation, Hamlet is a deeply thoughtful individual, thoughtful perhaps to the point where action is paralyzed, but thoughtful about some of life’s great and real questions. Whether and if so then how, to avenge his father’s murder is the embodiment of his deepest philosophical and emotional concerns, and produces some of the most eloquent poetical language dealing with philosophical problems in the English language.
Let me call the New York presentation “Hamlet as Neurotic.” The fulcrum of the imaginative re-interpretation, perhaps unintended, comes from a simple change in the play: delete the ghost scene, in which Hamlet addresses his father’s ghost and is told that his death was murder and his uncle the murderer. Absent that knowledge, the motivation for Hamlet’s conduct becomes his mother’s too rapid remarriage after Hamlet’s father’s death. Hamlet, unaware of the murder and its perpetrator, simply cannot deal with his mother’s conduct. Oedipus would understand; Freud could deal with it in one or two standard sessions on the couch. But Hamlet can’t get over it. He bemoans at childish length his mother’s unseemly speedy remarriage. Symbolically, an otherwise utterly irrelevant wedding cake, is never touched or even noticed by anyone in the cast, but hovers center rear stage throughout, presumably in the subconscious of the characters and the audience.
Pushing the reinterpretation – rewriting is perhaps the better word – Hamlet’s neurosis is acted out in modern dress. The men wear sports jackets, Hamlet is sloppily dressed, virtually in a t-shirt for much of the time, although always incongruously addressed as “My Lord” even by his closest friend, Horatio. The incongruity between the acting and the words, between the performance and the implications of the text, are constant. Hamlet is a balding teenager, petulant, verbose, undisciplined, impulsive simply unable to deal with his reactions to his parents’ behavior , shocked at his imaginings of their sexual behavior.
The setting is completely re-interpreted as well – not Elsinore Castle, but apparently a table in a white-cloth restaurant– in which the actors come and go quite unconcerned with where they are. Chairs are placed around the table, which is present throughout the play, and used primarily for the actors to lean on perhaps when their lines get to heavy for them to bear otherwise. On the other hand, the player’s great Hecuba speech is delivered by the player king sitting down on one of the chairs; when Hamlet later hectors the players on how to act, they all have to stand up.
Indeed, Hamlet is changed in the presentation from a sweet prince, and a deeply self-contemplative one, to a thoughtless balding young man displaying for all to see a neurotic relationship to his parents, spouting words at the top of his voice at a rapid pace without pause for breath, let alone thought, with a sense of humor up to making snide jokes showing off his wit but hardly with the corrosive impact revealing actualities below the surface, as the text would allow.
It just doesn’t work. One would expect Freud, not Fortinbras, to come in at the end to explain why those five corpses are lying there, and then clean the mess up. Shakespeare was dealing with great issues, public and private, of morality, religion, philosophy ambition, self-awareness, power. Modernizing the play to refocus its central issue from the relationship between thought and action to a focus on troubles with personal relationships within a family strips the play of its major, and still current, meaning. Reading the text after seeing the play shows how great the loss is.

The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.
1. The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.

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

Blo #42 – Neither Austerity Nor Affluence, but Abundance

Austerity, Abundance, or Affluence: Visions for a Post-Scarcity World


Is ending poverty really the limit of our ambitions for a good society? Is equality really the right measure of our ultimate hope for a re-imagined city? We don’t want austerity, and we question affluence; what do we want?

At a recent Re-imagining the City visioning session, the term “abundance” was suggested as characterizing the desirable city being envisioned. It was in the context of what public policies are ultimately wanted to achieve a sound vision of a good thoroughly re-imagined city. It aroused the beginning of a serious discussion. And provoked the following thoughts, focusing on the concept of abundance as the answer to the controversial current policy issues of austerity and growth.

As a first reaction: we have too much abundance now. Even if “abundance” is not limited to the physical, we have too much of the physical aspect for an ecologically sustainable city,  We need, if anything, a redistribution of what we have to those that need it most, and most of us have more of it than we need or can really appreciate. And even in the non-physical area, we have too much communication pressing in on us, too many demands on our time, too many people we would enjoy seeing more of but don’t have the time for, too many things we want to see and do and experience for our limited lifetimes. So not abundance, with its implication of more, but rather less, but differently distributed and maybe differently formed.

But there’s another way of reading the claim for “abundance.” Over the long course of history, and until very recently, most societies have struggled to create both the social relations and the physical goods necessary to meet all people’s basic needs: the needs for adequate shelter, food, water, security, care, that are necessary to sustain life.[1] They have been societies of scarcity. Consequently, some measure of austerity was inevitable, even as to basic needs, and if some were in a position to get more than they needed, that was at the cost of even more austerity for the rest. Even if  slowly a net societal surplus was created, it did not eliminate austerity, because of two limiting conditions:  1) the ability to produce a surplus over basic needs was still limited, and 2) the social arrangements included inequalities of power that permitted some to take more than they needed, reducing what was available for others. Thus, a large measure of austerity as to basic needs was existed for very many. Not to speak of austerity as to the many elements that would be desirable for a rich and fully developed human life to flourish for all.

But times have changed.  Neither of the limiting conditions that have brought about austerity the past longer need to exist. As to the technical, since at least the middle of the last century technological advances have gone so far that it is readily possible for a society to produce enough to provide all with the basic necessities of life and in addition  produce a surplus to enable all lives to flourish. Even with today’s technology, if we eliminated both the production of the weapons of war and the devastation their use causes, if we ended the waste in the production and marketing of socially unneeded goods, if we stopped making luxury goods and providing luxury services used more as shows of status than for actual use, we would have an abundance of what was actually needed. And today, as to the social, we have the knowledge to organize our societies rationally and to organize production and distribution in a way to enable a just and sustainable life for all. (The difficulties in applying that knowledge is discussed below) Austerity is no longer needed.

The opposite of austerity is abundance. Abundance is today both technologically feasible and desirable.

But an abundance of what, and how much of it? No absolute answer can be given to either  question, but some conclusions relevant to public policy and social relationships can be suggested. They lead to one answer: what is desired in abundance is what is appropriate not only for the basic necessities of life, the traditional physiological needs for food, water, and shelter, but includes the availability of the social services and supports that are generally accepted as being among the rights of man, things like health care, education, recreational opportunities. And beyond these basic necessities, the higher levels of needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, for social solidarity, security, respect, belonging, opportunities for self-expression, etc. . The aspiration for a level of abundance that can fully meet the hopes of all for this full range of needs, for what constitutes a full, rich life, is today a reasonable and feasible aspiration.

Abundance is a good term for what is wanted. Its precise formulation can, and should be, debated. It is not “growth,” for its own sak, certainly not as measure by GNP, or average incomes. Rising tides don’t lift all boats  equally, and growth of some activities can be positively harmful. “Abundance”  as used here is the generous availability of that which permits human flourishing and supports the full development of individual capabilities, that which optimizes happiness for all, that which promotes  living the most fully possible human life.[2] The aspiration for abundance goes beyond goals such as the elimination of poverty, the reduction of inequality, even the provision of justice based on performance. These are criteria that belong to a society of scarcity; in a society of abundance, they can be met and exceeded.

I take it for granted that what is wanted must meet criteria of social justice[3] and of sustainability. Neither of those criteria requires austerity today; both can be met consistent with the provision of abundance through the reasonable uses of technology and reasonable social arrangements.

So, as a matter of policy, austerity is not needed today as to neither the basic necessities of life, or as to the conditions permitting life beyond the basics to flourish. Imposing austerity on the level of governmental and social provision and actions is clearly the opposite of what is wanted, and stands in the way of achieving the good city and society that can be re-imagined today. Abundance is what is wanted.

But the question of the how much abundance is desired must also be answered.  Whatever that level is, it must of course be within the limits of ecological sustainability. That such a limit can technically be met and yet permit production of what is needed is not seriously debated.  It will certainly require alteration of some basic social arrangements. Detailing the requirements in concrete detail is in fact is one of the purposes of advocating re-imagining the city; the point here is only to clarifying the goal. The next step is appropriately a matter for democratic decision-making, there being agreement on the goal.

But, under existing social and political arrangements, there is a difficulty here. For there is a tendency among some within the  affluent portion of today’s societies to read into the goal of abundance, into the definition of what they need to flourish, an desire for recognition of  superiority,  a desire to have more than others, for a level of conspicuous consummation over and above their needs. The capitalist system inherently is based on the drive to accumulate; accumulation is an end in itself. We have the knowledge to change this and to do better, but the system blocks putting that knowledge to use. And it has been enormously successful in producing great wealth for some with poverty for others. And it is a self-perpetuating arrangement, for the possession of wealth brings with it power to keep the arrangements that provide it. Capitalism provides more than abundance for the affluent, and leaves less for the non-affluent, leaving as a result abundance for the few and austerity for the many.

Nor is that result accidental, or even unwanted, by the affluent.   The very dictionary definition of affluence makes the point clear

Affluence in the United States refers to an individual’s or household’s state of being in an economically favorable position in contrast to a given reference group.[4]

Affluence for the few contradicts abundance for the many.

And it is not only for the very few really affluent that this negative argument holds. The system that produces affluence for the few also creates a desire for affluence by many.  When people are asked why, if their income is modest, they object to raising taxes on the very rich, many answer that they hope to be very rich themselves some time in the future. They hope to change their position from one less favorable than that of the already affluent to one of affluence for themselves. Hence the phrase “affluent society,”[5] is used not because everyone in it is affluent, but because the pursuit of affluence is seen as a driving force in the whole society.

So the re-imagined image of the desirable society is neither one of austerity nor one of affluence, but one of abundance, somewhere in between.

A final important note: the vision of a society of abundance includes a vision of human beings quite different from what they tend to be in societies of austerity or of affluence.  They will not be like the suffering, worried, insecure, exploited and discontented and oppressed members of a society of deprivation and austerity. Nor will they be like the driven, one-dimensional, competitive, aggressive, self-satisfied but insecure top echelons of the society of affluence. Abundance would permit a society of individuals at peace with themselves, each other, and nature, relaxed, secure, other-regarding men and women. Acquisition of goods and services will not be for their commercial value, their exchange value, but for their direct use, in ways fostering sharing with others both for reasons of efficiency and solidarity.

No one will have to worry about whether they have enough of what they really need, as in a society of austerity, nor will anyone worry that others might have more than they have, as in a society of affluence.

The above description sounds utopian and a pipe dream. Abundance will not by itself produce such a society, but will make it possible. The path to it begins with a rejection of the necessity for austerity and a rejection of fixation on ever growing affluence, and an alteration of those social arrangements that today block the peaceful road to creating abundance for all.


[1] There’s a long discussion in the sociological literature about just how to define these needs. Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–96. is probably the seminal text, suggesting a hierarchy of needs, ranging from Physiological needs to Safety needs to needs for Love and Belonging to Esteem to Self-actualization. I use “basic needs” generically here as equivalent to physiological needs, and consider the other four as needs needing to be satisfied for a flourishing life. .

[2] For urban policy, Susan Fainstein’s The Just City, Cornell University Press, 2010, is good starting point for an examination of the possibilities, but the definitions of the good life have concerned philosophers, religions, political theorists, sociologists, economists, from time immemorial.

[3] Many different definitions of social justice have of course been put forward, with key contributions ranging from Plato to Kant to Marx to Rawls to Harvey to Fainstein and my own. The issues there involved again are not pursued in this paper.

[4] From  Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995

[5] The phrase was first popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith. In “The Affluent Society” Fortieth Anniversary Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, 1998. It was further critically explored in the appropriately named talk on “Liberation from the Affluent Society,” reprinted in Unpublished  Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume III:The New Left and the 1960s (Routledge, 2005),