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 #37 – Lopsided Language

Loaded Language

Language is a political tool. That’s generally recognized.  What speakers mean when they use words like “freedom,” “security,” “justice,” or “democracy” says a great deal about where they stand politically, and such terms are deliberately used for their political effect. It may not be immediately apparent on which side of what argument the users stand, but it is obvious that the meaning is controversial and needs to be looked into.

Other terms that sound good are already clearly identified with a particular cause, and are open about it. If someone says “affirmative action,” or stresses “balancing budgets,” or “job creators,” or “all life is sacred,” we are immediately on notice that, while they sound good, there is a political position being put forward, an argument being made that requires reflection and proper contextualization. They are used as propaganda. Propaganda includes the artful choice of words to give a persuasive political message; those in the business make no bones about why they use some words and not others

More insidious, however, is when words are used that have an apparent obvious and noncontroversial meaning, that are customarily taken at face value and without refection, that are not reacted to as propaganda, but yet are just as much propaganda as the more obvious ones. And this often happens, not by what meaning is accepted for the words, but what meaning is avoided, suppressed distorted. These are words tacitly accepted as either good or bad, as non-controversial with an implicitly accepted meaning, that if they were seen as politically serving one purpose or another, would be the subject of debate. They are words like “consensus”, “growth,” “innovation,” “sustainable,” “resilience.” Some have indeed been subject to quite controversial scrutiny: “tolerance,” for instance, or “democracy“, on “inclusive.”  But others, such as those examined here, are generally used without particular attention being paid to their political implications, and operate, in a way subliminally, below the threshold of conscious examination,[1] to buttress a particular political position or world view, generally that of the establishment.

Take the words “poverty” and “inequality.” Which is the problem, poverty or inequality? Well, both, of course. But we have had a “War on Poverty” substantially funded at the national level and implemented in cities throughout the land, but when a candidate for Mayor of New York City makes a call to reduce inequality a key part of his platform, he is attacked as being “divisive,” and tea party Republicans denounce advocates of social welfare measures as fomenting a “class war” in the country. The difference in the phrases is telling. It is acceptable to declare “war on poverty,” because no-one is being attacked, Studies of how to wage it focus on the poor, their social capital or lack of it, the poor need education, contacts with middle-class folk and their job opportunities and their moral customs, maybe child care are health care or even jobs, for which of course they need the training. All may be true, and even helpful if seriously addressed. But the rich are not involved, certainly not seen as part of the problem, part of the causes of poverty. We need to reduce the gap between rich and poor, but certainly not by measures that reduce the wealth of the poor, according to the dominant thinking and language.

Yet inequality has a certain resonances, enough to be of concern to the establishment. Not many go so far as Mayor Bloomberg of New York City, who even accepts and justifies it, arguing it shouldn’t have such a bad rap. Bizarrely, he argues that inequality is good for the poor:

“Other cities have much lower inequality levels,” Mr. Bloomberg’s press secretary, Marc LaVorgna, said, citing Detroit and Camden, N.J. “Are those better places for low-income families to live? Or would they be better off if they had more wealthy people, and a larger income gap,”

Or, to quote Tony Auth’s cartoon, what Bloomberg might say:

“As not what you can do for equality. Ask what inequality can do for you.”

But even Paul Krugman, an energetic defender of the interests of the poor, feels forced to argue that, after all.  Helping the poor will help everybody, because what they will buy with increased incomes will be goods sold by to them by the rich and thus rebounding to the benefit of rich as well as of poor. And the even those not willing to go so far, and presenting impressive documentation on the extent of the growing inequality and its injustice, focus their arguments on the difficulties that the poor face, with some attention to the benefits to the rich, but rather little on how those benefits to the rich in fact are founded on the poverty of the poor. Only died-in-the-wool Marxists seem today to have picked up on the implications of concepts such as surplus value, which suggests that the profits of businesses and the wealth of their owners is directly related to how little they can pay the workers that produce what they sell.  There are words whose usage is tabooed, as well as words in lopsided usage.

A War on Inequality threatens the rich, a War on Poverty does not. “Poverty” is an acceptable term in mainstream discourse; Inequality rather slips to the side.

There is a political logic in this pattern of word usage. The ability of the 1% to maintain their position, both in politics and in the economy, rests not only on their physical power but also, and perhaps more and more, on their ability to contain the opposition of the governed, of the poor and of the middle “class” as well. Jürgen Habermas wrote of the Legitimation Crisis, the need of those on top to justify their positions to those below. This is accomplished in part by the handling of words, of language. Specifically, a major part of their argument is that there is a commonality of interest, not a conflict, between rich and poor. How each does is independent of how the other does; the poor may deserve more, indeed it can be recognized  that they do and that some level of charity and fairness must be shown them, but not at the expense of the rich or their practices. The poor must be helped to change; the rich need not do so.  The reality of a conflict of interest must be suppressed, and indeed is better not even let surface, and the lopsided use of words having a conventionally established meaning bottling up any incentive to challenge that meaning is a large part of the process.

Take other language. “Inclusion” and “exclusion” are words frequently used in policy discussions by political leaders, researchers, journalists, talking heads. “Inclusion” of course is a good thing, devoutly to be wished; to be excluded is undesirable. Right? But note the passive voice, which reads quite naturally – yet it already conceals the agency of the excluders in the exclusion. The focus is on those who are excluded, not on those who do the exclusion. They are not doing so well because of their characteristics: they lack education, skills, maybe morals, etc. They are overcrowded in insecure, unsupportive neighborhoods; they are not included in healthy middle class or better ones, and should be. The social city program of the European Union is addressed to deal with the problem, teaching those in such neighborhoods how to behave, how to improve themselves, so that they will be more acceptable in better communities. That the better communities in fact achieve their quality in part by their ability to exclude, that pubic actions support the “two cities” phenomenon partly be looking only at one of the cities, that of the poor, without analyzing the functioning of the other, of the better off – that’s a question the term “inclusion” might be thought logically to raise, but it’s conventional and overwhelmingly accepted usage does not raise, It is a lopsided usage, but the prevalent one.[2]

And there are terms whose conventionally and overwhelmingly accepted usage simply smothers any potential critical content. Terms such as “tolerance”, “diversity,” “sustainability,” all have important and good meanings, consistent with the achievement of social justice. But they can unexamined, be co-opted and used for their opposite. Tolerance can mean acceptance of racism, homophobia, arrogance, chauvinism. Diversity can be used to support the presence of the poor in all neighborhoods, as contributing to a desired diversity, without questioning the existence of poverty or the harm it can do to those at the bottom, as in gentrification which increased diversity but displaces the poor. Not everything should be sustained; on its face, sustainability almost calls for a continuation of the social status quo, usually less by aiming to do so as by never reaching the question. Such concepts are two or many sided; a lopsided usage implicitly supports existing social relations.

Of course, ultimately, we are all in it together, ultimately it is indeed to everyone benefit that all of us should be included and treated fairly in one world, one united city, one society in which each is tolerant of all other, all enjoy the benefits of diversity. But pretending, deliberately or by omission, that we are already there defeats the purpose of getting there. If we’re already there, no reason to change anything to get there. The very use of the word “we” in sentences such as the above is a tip-off to the lopsided understandings ordinary words can be given. “We” are a very disparate group of people; some of us are already tolerant and enjoy diversity and it’s to “”everyone’s” benefit that “we” act in solidarity with each other. But “we” also excludes a lot of people whose interests today are very different from each other, whatever they may ultimately” be. We can’t all be winner. If there are winners there must be losers. To try to make all of us winners while the game continues to make winners and losers won’t work.

“We,” as it’s most generally used,[3] should actually mean “some people” – a wag once suggested it should only be used when it means “me and my friends.” Lopsided meanings given to such words, many words, which conceal alternate meanings and wash out contradictions and conflicts among groups and interests, get in the way of changing things so that “we” could actually mean “all of us,” not just some of us. Straightening out the lopsided uses of language would be a big help.

[1] Herbert Marcuse has a long riff on the subject of language, pushing it further to argue that the very structure of grammatical laws has such political implications. See One-Dimensional Man, Chapter 4.

[2] A recent report to URBACT II, May 2013, Against Divided Cities In Europe, brought to my attention by Ivan Tosics of Hungary, is a welcome exception , calling explicitly in 0065amining “divided cities” for “planning and interventions across the whole city (which includes rich areas.)” p. 6

[3] A detailed example is at Blog 35, “Watch your Language, Krugman,” at

Blog #35 – Watch your language, Krugman and the Rest of “Us.”

Watch your language, Krugman and the Rest  of “Us.”

Paul Krugman, a favorite of mine, in writing about the present currency crisis in the New York Times, August 30, 2013,[1] brings to mind an old joke:

 The Lone Ranger and his Indian friend Tonto are riding out in the wild west when they are about to be surrounded by a band of hostile-seeming Indian warriors. The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says: “Tonto, I think we’re in trouble, we better get out of here.” Tonto looks at him and at the Indians and says, “What do you mean, ‘we,’ white man?”

 Who does Krugman mean by we? Krugman’s headline is, “Why don’t we learn from financial crises?” He asks, about the current Indonesian currency crisis, “…should we be worried about Asia all over again?” The crises show “low little we learned from that crisis 16 years ago. We didn’t reform the financial industry…”

 But who “we?” Sometimes he’s quite clear: He cites the Time magazine cover with Robert Rubin, then Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, his deputy, under the caption “The Committee to Saves the World.” Clearly it’s the 1%, saving “the World,”, that is, all the rest of us included, from disaster.  Krugman is quite clear on his analysis about who’s responsible: he later, for instance,  refers to the policy makers, talking of the International Monetary Fund. But the language he uses is slippery, and has subliminal meaning he doesn’t intend. When he asks why don’t “we” learn from the last crisis, who does he mean? Larry Summers and Robert Rubin are doing quite well in this crisis also; who didn’t learn? The 1% or the 99%?

 When Krugman writes: ”…we’re actually doing much worse this time around.”  he means the 99%; the 1% are doing quite well, looking at the profits of the banks, the stock market, the growing share of the national income the 1% are receiving. Using the “we” serves to implicitly avoid the question of responsibility, who has benefited and who lost, who made the decisions and who was subject to them. “We” didn’t reform the financial industry. “We didn’t”? You and me? No. The financial industry fought off the regulation. But the “we” makes it seem: “We’re” all in this together, one (1%) for all, and all (99%) for one. Implicitly and I believe unintentionally,  the language used blames the victims as much  as the perpetrators.

 This failure to identify actors, to clarify who is doing what to whom, to highlight the conflicts of interest that underlie policy, ultimately to point out who’s on what side and what must politically be done, comes about just from the habit of using conventional terms without thinking about them, to accept dominant modes of speaking and describing without realizing the content they convey in ordinary discourse.

 The same is true when the subjects of actions are not identified: “the more austerity fails, the more bloodletting is demanded.” It’s a policy that’s failing, not some particular persons nor groups who have the power to make policy that are failing – and failing whom? Not themselves. The 1% who make the policy are doing quite well by it, by and large they are hardly “failing.” “Deregulation went full speed ahead.,” Krugman writes of the past. By itself? Or did it get pushed, and if so, by whom, how.? “…huge inflows of foreign money [go] mainly to the private sector.’ By themselves, like water running downhill? Who’s sending it, who’s benefiting from the flow, who suffering, is not deliberately concealed; it just doesn’t rise to the surface, from the language.

 When the slippery “we” is coupled with “learn,” the political implications become even clearer. “Why don’t ‘we’learn’ from financial crises?” “We” here might in fact mean everybody, although that’s actually not what Krugman means. But, whoever it is, is learning what’s required? If everyone accepted Krugman’s perceptive analysis of the crisis, would all of us be better off? Isn’t it rather that some, the 1%, understand very well, and mold the response to their own interests, and the rest, the 99%, even if they understood (and many certainly do, including most of Krugman’s readers, but are powerless to put their understanding into practice? Using the language of learning to describe the problem implicitly makes it one not of political conflict and conflict of interests, but one of education. Well, Krugman is a teacher; if your tool is a hammer, every problem is a nail; if your tool is teaching, every problem is one of learning. Krugman certainly knows better, but the language doesn’t reveal that.

 This is not just stylistic nit-picking. It is language that depoliticizes what goes on in the world; it has to do with a political world-view. On the one side, one may see policy differences and conflicts of interest as parts of a learning process, in which all citizens participate in an effort to achieve a just result for all – a process where there is a real and all-inclusive “we.” Or one may see the world, or at least that is made up of different nations different classes, different genders, different interests, as one in which conflicts of interest are pervasive, in which power is widely sought, unevenly gained, constantly exercised by and on behalf of specific groups and individuals and at the expense of other specific groups of individuals. To the extent that language plays a role, consciously or not, the “we”-ing and references to actor-less actions implicitly supports the first world view, rather than the second. And that necessarily has implications for political thinking and action. In this case, it’s likely unintended, but unclear.

 It should always be clear, even on a quick reading, who is doing what to whom.

 Peter Marcuse                                                 September 3, 2013

Investors Expect Profits, But Unemployment Remains High. But? Because!

Investors expect profits BECAUSE Unemployed remains high.

Re: Investors Expect Strong Profits (Christine Hauser, New York Times, July 12, 2010, Business Section, B1.

Investors expect good profits, but employment lags, the story says. “But?” Maybe “”because?”

“…the rebound in corporate profits has not translated into a rebound in jobs. Many companies have cut costs and increased productivity,” the story reads. Exactly. What kind of unconscious repression of logical thought is involved not to recognize that the cutting of costs and increase in productivity comes precisely from laying off workers and speeding up the work of those that remain (increasing productivity)? Labor costs are a major component of cots, reduce them and you increase profits, strategic  layoffs are good for business’ bottom line, they make stock prices go up. And employment go down. Investors know that, even if journalists leave it unrecognized.

Listen to Louis Uchitelle, of the New York Times, who has it right:

The recession camouflages a far
more insidious and long-lasting corporate strategy:
Instead of temporary pay cuts to get through a few
tough months, major corporations have something very,
very different in mind.

As NY Times economics reporter and The Disposable
American author Louis Uchitelle wrote on Sunday, major
firms are on the verge of consolidating a long-sought
goal with a two-tier wage system:

    The managers of some marquee companies are aiming
    to make this concession permanent. If they are
    successful, their contracts could become blueprints
    for other companies in other cities, extending a
    wage system that would be a startling retreat for

    Though union officials said they could not readily
    supply data on the practice, managers have been
    trying to achieve this for 30 years, with limited
Firms See Long-Sought Goal in Sight: Major Pay Cuts

by Roger Bybee
In These Times
November 24, 2010

Even the editorial page writer of the New York Times understands it:

“Of late [sic!], profits and related stock-market gains have been fueled not by increased revenues but by lay[offs and other cults.s.” New York Times, January 19, 2011, p. A20.