Saturday, January 02, 2016

Capitalist Inequality: Here, There, and Everywhere

El Lissitzky, 5. Globetrotter (in der Zeit), From Victory Over the Sun (1923)

From the Institute for Policy Studies— 

“Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us” 

America’s 20 wealthiest people — a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet — now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.
  • The Forbes 400 now own about as much wealth as the nation’s entire African-American population — plus more than a third of the Latino population — combined.
  •  The wealthiest 100 households now own about as much wealth as the entire African American population in the United States. Among the Forbes 400, just 2 individuals are African American — Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith. 
  • The wealthiest 186 members of the Forbes 400 own as much wealth as the entire Latino population. Just five members of the Forbes 400 are Latino including Jorge Perez, Arturo Moreno, and three members of the Santo Domingo family. 
  • With a combined worth of $2.34 trillion, the Forbes 400 own more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the country combined, a staggering 194 million people. 
  • The median American family has a net worth of $81,000. The Forbes 400 own more wealth than 36 million of these typical American families. That’s as many households in the United States that own cats.

We believe that these statistics actually underestimate our current national levels of wealth concentration. The growing use of offshore tax havens and legal trusts has made the concealing of assets much more widespread than ever before. [The rest of this article is here.]

In a post from roughly five years ago I posed the following questions (albeit now edited) and made several observations pertinent to our focus on inequality:

Is it possible to achieve a globally egalitarian neo-Keynesian Golden Age? Poverty remains recalcitrant in several regions of the world while regional and global inequality is dramatically increasing, economic facts we might grant without in any way denying the historic significance of capitalism for wealth creation (and thus betterment of standards of living if not quality of life indices). Are we, at last, reaching the structural limits of capitalist economic logic? Have we exhausted the economic—and, yes, moral—virtues of the neo-classical economic worldview? Or, are we merely at the lowest ebb of an economic cycle that will be cured by some fortuitous combination of conventional and creative politico-economic policies crafted by prudent democratic leaders of countries North and South? Is this a propitious time for contemplating and renewing the collective struggle for the dissolution of the “aristocracy of capital” and the “economization of social relations?” Is the time ripe for (re)articulation of the authority of the Good by way of abandoning the capitalist criteria for socio-economic success? Are we prepared to break, once and for all, with the structural socio-economic and political constraints of “capitalist democracy?” Must the welfare and well-being of the masses and their generalizable interests remain subordinate to the welfare of capitalists and their particular or special interests? Are the interests of working people fated to be canalized into the exclusive pursuit of economic advantage (which often deleteriously impacts the nature of ‘discretionary time’)? Must labor markets remain plagued by the material uncertainties and insecurities intrinsic to the private control of investment within the terms of globalized capitalism?

The distorted and artificial needs and the individually and socially harmful desires either directly generated or indirectly encouraged or facilitated by hyper-industrialized turbo- and finance capitalism finds the masses in a state in which they feel an overwhelming desire to be psychologically indemnified by conspicuous consumption of both goods and (status) “signs,” a logic causally implicated in the persistence of absolute and relative poverty. Capitalist democracy remains committed to the aristocracy of Capital, meaning that, in the end, the special interests of capitalists trump generalizable interests tied to the common good, while economic insecurity compels workers to canalize their interests in the struggle for higher wages or short-term material gain. The aristocracy of Capital finds workers dehumanized insofar as they’re indemnified by the false promises of conspicuous consumption and irresponsible affluence (in part, because environmentally devastating), utterly distorting the pursuit of happiness (or eudaimonia, or what might be called ‘existential sophrosyne’) and the potential of individuals for uniquely realizing and manifesting both values and virtues.

Can we, instead, accord socio-economic primacy to creating the necessary (and thus not necessarily sufficient) conditions for generalizing psychological and moral individuation or self-realization? Assuming the capacity to meet basic material human needs, can we resort to invoking moral and psychological if not spiritual criteria associated with the recognition and fulfillment of our moral and spiritual aspirations by way of regulating economic life, thereby both integrating and subordinating the economic realm in a manner conductive to generalizing the pursuit of self-actualization or self-realization (in a psychological, moral and spiritual sense)? In overcoming the freedom-inhibiting effects of inequality can we at the same time enhance and generalize an innate motivation (heretofore often repressed or suppressed) toward worthy living, in other words—and within the constraints of dignity and self-respect—generalize the capacity for the appreciation and realization of what it means to live a worthy and self-fulfilling life?

We conclude with a short list of fundamental works for mapping the sundry (i.e., historical, sociological, descriptive, normative, and evaluative) dimensions of socio-economic and political inequality as it bears upon (1) the constriction of basic capabilities and functionings, (2) the diminution of positive freedom, and (3) the failure to generalize the conditions of and potential for human fulfillment (i.e., the freedom of individuals as incarnate in their capacity to engage in active self-realization*). In short, our beliefs about and concern for equality is at one with our concern for freedom, that is, with “human empowerment and the quest for emancipation.

  • Atkinson, Anthony B. Inequality: what can be done? (Harvard University Press 2015). 
  • Bourguignon, François (Thomas Scott-Railton, tr.) The Globalization of Inequality (Princeton University Press, 2015). 
  • Bowles, Samuel. The New Economics of Inequality and Redistribution (Cambridge University Press, 2012). 
  • Grusky, David and Szonja Szelenyi, eds. The Inequality Reader: Contemporary and Foundational Readings in Race, Class, and Gender (Westview Press, 2nd ed., 2011). 
  • Milanovic, Branko. The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality (Basic Books, 2011). 
  • Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014). 
  • Reid-Henry, Simon. The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World Is Better for Us All (University of Chicago Press, 2015). 
  • Sen, Amartya. Inequality Rexamined (Russell Sage Foundation/Harvard University Press, 1992).  
  • Stiglitz, Joseph E. The Price of Inequality (W.W. Norton & Co., 2012). 
  • Stiglitz, Joseph E. The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (W.W. Norton & Co., 2015). 
  • Therborn, Göran. The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity Press, 2013). 
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Interrogating Inequality: Essays on Class Analysis, Socialism and Marxism (Verso, 1994). 
  • Wright, Erik Olin. Envisioning Real Utopias (Verso, 2010).

* On “active self-realization,” see Jon Elster’s essay, “Self-realisation in work and politics: the Marxist conception of the good life,” in Jon Elster and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 1989): 127-158.


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