Category: Economics and Inequality

Violence and Inequality (Part Two)

The thesis of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler:  Violence and Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton UP, 2017) is easily stated: “Thousands of years of history boil down to a simple truth: ever since the dawn of civilization, ongoing advances in economic capacity and state building favored growing inequality, but did little if anything to bring it under control.  Up to and including the Great Compression of 1914 to 1950, we are hard pressed to identify reasonably well attested and nontrivial reductions in material inequality that were not associated, one way or another, with violent shocks” (391).

In particular, Scheidel says there are four kinds of “violent shocks” (he calls them the four horsemen): war, plague, system or state collapse, and violent revolution.  But it turns out that not even all instances of those four can do the job of reducing inequality.  The violent shocks, it turns out, must be massive. Only “mass mobilization” wars reduce inequality, so (perhaps) only World War I and, especially, World War II actually count as doing the job.  The Napoleonic Wars clearly do not–and it is harder to tell with the possible mass mobilizations in the ancient world.

Similarly, except for the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century (both of which caused, at the minimum, fifteen million deaths), revolutions rarely seem to have significantly altered the distribution of resources.  The Black Death (lasting as it did, in waves, over at least eighty and perhaps 120 years) and perhaps similar earlier catastrophic plagues (of which less is certainly known) stand as the only examples of leveling epidemics.  For system or state collapse, we get the fall of Rome—and not much else that is relevant since then, with speculations about collapses prior to Rome and in the Americas (Aztecs and Incas) where (once again) the available evidence leads to conjectures but no firm proofs.

Where does that leave us?  In two places, apparently.  One is that inequality leveling events are rare, are massive, and are, arguably, worse than the disease to which they are the cause.  Also, except for the revolutions, the leveling effects are unintentional by-products.  Which leads the second place: the very conservative conclusion (much like Hayek’s thoughts about the market as being beyond human control/calculation or T. S. Eliot’s similar comments about “culture” being an unplanned and unplannable product of human actions) that, although the creation of inequality is very much the result of human actions that are enabled and sustained by the state (i.e. by political organization), there is little that can be done politically (and deliberately) to reduce inequality.  Scheidel is at great pains to show a) that even the great shocks only reduce inequality for a limited time (about 60 to 80 years) before inequality starts to rise again; b) that the various political expedients currently on the table (like a wealth tax of the kind Elizabeth Warren is proposing or high marginal tax rates) would lower inequality very slightly at most; and c) that the scale of violence required to significantly lower inequality (as contrasted to the marginal reductions that less violent measures could effect) is simply too horrible to deliberately embrace as a course of action.

So the conclusion appears to be: bemoan inequality as much as you like, but also find a way to come to terms with the fact that it is basically irremediable.  Scheidel is good at the bemoaning part, portraying himself as someone who sees inequality as deplorable, even evil.  But he is just as resolute in condemning violence aimed at decreasing inequality.  So his unstated, but strongly, implied recommendation is quietist.

In line with my ongoing obsessions, the book appears to reinforce what I have deemed one of the paradoxes of violence: namely, the fact that the state is undoubtedly a constraint upon violence even as states are also undoubtedly the source of more violence than non-state actors.  In the new version of this paradox that Scheidel’s book suggests, the formulation would go like this: the state enables greater economic activity/productivity while also enabling far greater economic inequality.

Yet the state’s enabling of inequality doesn’t work the other way.  It seems just about impossible to harness the state to decrease inequality—except in the extreme case of war.  World War II certainly bears that out in recent (the past 300 years) history.  The US (in particular) adopted (in astoundingly short order) a very communistic framework to conduct the war (with a command economy in terms of what was to be produced and how people were to be assigned their different roles in production, along with strict wage and price controls, and rationing).  It would seem that the war proved that a command economy can be efficient and, not only that, but in times of dire need, a command economy was obviously preferable to the chaos of the free market.  The war effort was too important to be left to capitalism.  But outside of a situation of war, it has seemed impossible to have the state play that kind of leveling role, strongly governing both production and distribution.  Why?  Because only war produces the kind of social solidarity required for such centralized (enforced) cooperation?  To answer that way gets us back to violence as required—because violence is a force of social cohesion like none other.

To phrase it this way gets us back to an ongoing obsession of this blog: the problem of mobilization.  How to create a sustainable mass movement that can exert the kind of pressure on elites that is required to shift resources downward?  If violence as teh source of cohesion for that movement is taken off the table, what will serve in its place?  Which also raises the thought of why nationalism is so entangled in violence and in rhetorics/practices of sacrifice.  The means by which social cohesion is created.  Maybe that’s the “numinous” quality of violence to which Charles Taylor keeps gesturing.  A kind of Durkheimian creation of the collective, a way of escaping/transcending the self.

A different thought: Scheidel makes a fairly compelling case (although it is not his main focus) that the creation of inequality is itself dependent on violence.  Sometimes the violence of appropriation is massive–especially in the cases of empires which are basically enterprises of either outright extraction (carting off the loot) or somewhat more indirect extortion (requiring the payment of “tribute” in return for peace/protection).  Or sometimes the violence of appropriation is less massive and less direct.  But appropriation still requires a state that, in the last instance, will protect appropriated property against the claims of those who see that appropriation as either unjust or as inimical to their own interests.  In short, the power of the state (a power that resides, to at least some extent, in its capacity for violence and its willingness to put that capacity into use) is necessary to the creation and maintenance of inequality.  So, in one way, it seems like a “little” violence can get you inequality, but it requires “massive” violence to dislodge that inequality in the direction of more equality.  And it is this difference in scale that places the exploited in such an unfavorable position when it comes to remedial action.

Of course, the growth in inequality since 1980 in the US was grounded in legal instruments and institutional practices.  The increasing power of employers over employees, the prevention of the state from intervening in massive lay-offs or equally massive outsourcing, the onslaught of privatization and deregulation (or lax enforcement of existing regulations), the legalization of all kinds of financial speculation and “creative instruments” etc. etc. was all accomplished “non-violently” through a classic “capture of the state.”  This is what inspires the most radical leftist visions; the left seems utterly paralyzed as it witnesses all these court cases, new laws, revisions of executive practice, a paralysis generated by the fact that the shifts of power and wealth to the top 10% are all “legal.”  The radical claims there is no “legal” room left for the radical egalitarian to occupy.  The system is so corrupt that it offers no remedies within its scope.  But the distaste for massive violence (here is where Scheidel is relevant) appears to take extra-legal methods for change off the table.



Violence and Inequality

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote a weekly letter from London for the New Yorker during the course of World War II.  On April 29, 1945, with the end in sight, she writes of the Budget report just released: “The figures on net incomes, prewar and war, which were given in the Budget provides much food for brooding in the clubs.  Seven thousand people had net annual incomes of six thousand pounds and over in 1939, the report said, but there were only eighty in the category in 1943.  The figures showed an increase of three million persons in the group which earns between two hundred and fifty and five hundred pounds a year.  Some of the things that Socialist orators in Hyde Park have long been clamoring for on Sunday mornings seem to have come about not through a bloody revolution but through a very bloody war” (London War Notes [London: Persephone Books, 2014]: 452-53).

To begin with an irrelevancy: I can’t help but be astonished by the numbers.  Six thousand pounds at the high end; two hundred fifty pounds as a decent income!  The UK National Archives website has a handy currency converter that tells me 250 pounds in 1945 had the purchasing power of approximately 9000 pounds in 2017. (Hard to believe you could live on 9000 pounds in 2017 England.  Double that–i.e. 500 1945 pounds–might just barely keep you in house and food.) That means 6000 pounds in 1945 comes out to 216,000 pounds in 2017 dollars.  And an income of 6000 pounds is 24 times greater than one of 250 pounds.

So: three things to note.

  1. Pretty substantial inflation between 1945 and the present—after a very long run of non-inflation and, in fact, slight deflation between the Napoleonic wars and World War II (about 125 years).

2.  The number of the population receiving high incomes is very, very small.  Seems hard to believe.  Only 7000 people at the top income level in 1939?  When there are at least 3 million lower wage earners.  That works out to two tenths of a percent at the top income level.  Digging around a bit, (one good source: I get these historical figures for the UK:

The top 10% had 35% of all incomes in 1939; 22% of all incomes in 1972; and it was back up to 35% in 2016.  The top 1% had 19% of total income in 1913; it had sunk all the way to 6% in 1972; and was up to 15% in 2010.  (We can safely assume it is a point or two higher in 2019.)

What do those figures tell us?  Basically that, for the UK at least, the very high level of income inequality that prevailed prior to the triple whammy of World War I, the depression, and World War II has almost been completely reestablished since 1972.  This result, of course, should not surprise us.  It is what Thomas Piketty and his various colleagues have been telling us for the past ten years.

But these figures suggest that more than 0.2% of the population were earning the top incomes in 1939.  And they also suggest that some of those top incomes must have been substantially higher than 6000 pounds—which is only 24x greater than 250 pounds (a laughable figure by 2019 standards when CEOs earn 250x and more than the average worker.)

  1. Walter Scheidel, a historian at Stanford, set out to test Piketty’s theses about the fluctuations of income and wealth inequality in the largest possible historical frame. Scheidel’s fascinating (and deeply depressing) book is The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2017).  Panter-Downes, in 1945, already recognized what Piketty was to assert in his 2014 Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press): the “great compression” of the years 1914 to 1970, the dramatic decrease in income and wealth inequality in the middle years of the 20th century, were the direct result of long and bloody wars.  Europe in the 20th century conducted a huge potlatch, a wanton destruction of vast amounts of wealth.  And since the already wealthy had the most to lose since they possessed the most at the outset, the outcome was a general leveling.   When we recognize that 1972 marked the pinnacle of economic equality in countries like the UK and the US, the counter-revolution begun in the Thatcher and Reagan years comes into sharp focus.


I am going to write at length about the Scheidel book, but will leave that to the rest of this week.

Broken America

At the MLA Convention, I picked up a book from Penguin with the title Tales of Two Americas: Stories of Inequality in a Divided Nation, edited by John Freeman.  The book collects various vignettes, along with some poems and longer essays, on life in these Untied States by a set of novelists and poets.  They are almost completely free of attempts to generalize; instead, they just focus in on particular stories set in particular places, almost all of them (reflecting their writers’ own lives) in cities.  They are consistently well-written and moving.

In his introduction, Freeman writes:  “America is broken.  You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this.  You just need eyes and ears and stories.  Walk around any American city and evidence of the shattered compact with citizens will present itself.  There you will see broken roads, overloaded schools, police forces on edge, clusters and sometimes whole tent cities of homeless people camped in eyeshot of shopping districts that are beginning to resemble ramparts of wealth rather than stores for all.  Thick glass windows and security guards stand between aspirational goods and the people outside . . .” (x).

I don’t know why such a stark statement of the case should shock me.  And shock isn’t exactly the right word anyway—unless it is the shock of recognition.  Still, there are the multiple ways we all find everyday to evade this knowledge, the ways we carry on our normal lives and try to ignore the fact that our politicians refuse to face up to even the most glaring of our nation’s problems, and that our media/culture never focuses on anything substantive, and that our elites work hard to make things worse even as they spin tales about how they are making things better.  We think of emergencies of the past—the Depression, World War II—and imagine a nation actually focused on the real issues and determined to roll up its sleeves to address them.

Maybe that’s a fantasy, but FDR (for all his faults) did things—and he had a solid majority urging him to do those things.  Today, instead, a strong minority (and one that has power beyond its numbers due to gerrymandering and the undemocratic Senate) aims to take away the healthcare subsidies and food stamps that are just about the last meager help offered to the most destitute.  There appears to be an absolute refusal to even acknowledge the suffering at the bottom of our society.  And it is that refusal, along with the fact of the suffering, that marks America as broken.  The old conundrum of poverty amidst plenty stalks the land.  How can we be so rich and so mean at the same time?  How is it that we use our resources so foolishly?






Moral Envy and Opportunity Hoarding

One quick addendum to the last post—and to Bertrand Russell’s comment about how the traditionalist is allowed all kinds of indignation that the reformer is not.  What’s with the ubiquity of death threats against anyone who offends the right wing in the United States?  That those who would change an established social practice/pattern, no matter how unjust or absurd, deserve a death sentence is, to all appearances, simply accepted by the radical right.  So, just to give one example, the NC State professor who went public with his memories of drinking heavily with Brett Kavanaugh at Yale immediately got death threats—as did some of his colleagues in the History Department.  Maybe you could say that snobbish contempt for the “deplorables” is the standard left wing response to right wingers—just as predictable as right wingers making death threats.  But contempt and scorn are not solely the prerogative of the left, whereas death threats do seem only mobilized by the right.

Which does segue, somewhat, into today’s topic, which was to take up David Graeber’s alternative way of explaining the grand canyon between the left and right in today’s America.  His first point concerns what he calls “moral envy.”  “By ‘moral envy,’ I am referring here to feelings of envy and resentment directed at another person, not because that person is wealthy, or gifted, or lucky, but because his or her behavior is seen as upholding a higher moral standard than the envier’s own.  The basic sentiment seems to be ‘How dare that person claim to be better than me (by acting in a way that I do indeed acknowledge is better than me?”” (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory [Simon and Schuster, 2018], 248).  The most usual form this envy takes, in my experience, is the outraged assertion that someone is a “hypocrite.”  The right wing is particularly addicted to this claim about liberal do-gooders.  The liberals, in their view, claim to be holier than thou, but know what side their bed is feathered on, and do quite well for themselves.  They wouldn’t be sipping lattes and driving Priuses if they weren’t laughing their way to the bank.  Moral envy, then, is about bringing everyone down to the same low level of behavior—and thus (here I think Graeber is right) entails a covert acknowledgement that the general run of behavior is not up to our publicly stated moral aspirations.  So we don’t like the people who make the everyday, all-too-human fact of the gap between our ideals and our behavior conspicuous.  Especially when their behavior indicates that the gap is not necessary.  It is actually possible to act in a morally admirable manner.

But then Graeber goes on to do something unexpected—and to me convincing—with this speculation about moral envy.  He ties it to jobs.  Basically, the argument goes like this: some people get to have meaningful jobs, ones for which it is fairly easy to make the case that “here is work worth doing.”  Generally, such work involves actually making something or actually providing a needed service to some people.  The farmer and the doctor have built-in job satisfaction insofar as what they devote themselves to doing requires almost no justification—to themselves or to others.  (This, of course, doesn’t preclude all kinds of dissatisfactions with factors that make their jobs needlessly onerous or economically precarious.)

Graeber’s argument in Bullshit Jobs is that there are not enough of the meaningful jobs to go around.  As robots make more of the things that factory workers used to make and as agricultural labor also requires far fewer workers than it once did, we have not (as utopians once predicted and as Graeber still believes is completely possible) rolled back working hours.  Instead, we generated more and more bullshit jobs—jobs that are make-work in some cases (simply unproductive in ways that those who hold the job can easily see) or, even worse, jobs that are positively anti-productive or harmful (sitting in office denying people’s welfare or insurance claims; telemarketing; you can expand the list.)  In short, lots of people simply don’t have access to jobs that would allow them to do work that they, themselves, morally approve of.

Graeber’s point is that the people who hold these jobs know how worthless the jobs are.  But they rarely have other options—although the people he talks to in his book do often quit these soul-destroying jobs.  The political point is that the number of “good” jobs, i.e. worthwhile, meaningful jobs is limited.  And the people who have those jobs curtail access to them (through professional licensing practices in some cases, through networking in other cases).  There is an inside track to the good jobs that depends, to a very large extent, on being to the manor/manner born.  Especially for the jobs that accord upper-middle-class status (and almost guarantee that one will be a liberal), transmission is generational.  This is the “opportunity hoarding” that Richard Reeves speaks about in his 2017 book, Dream Hoarders.  The liberal professional classes talk a good game about diversity and meritocracy, but they basically keep the spots open for their kids.  Entry into that world from the outside is very difficult and very rare.

To the manner born should also be taken fairly literally.  Access to the upper middle class jobs still requires the detour of education–and how to survive (and even thrive) at an American university is an inherited trait.  Kids from the upper middle class are completely at home in college, just as non-middle-class kids are so often completely at sea.  Yes, school can be a make-it and a break-it, a place where an upper class kid falls off the rails and place where the lower class kid finds a ladder she manages to climb.  But all the statistics, as well as my own experience as a college teacher for thirty years, tell me that the exceptions are relatively rare.  College is a fairly difficult environment to navigate–and close to impossibly difficult for students to whom college’s idiolects are not a native language.

So two conclusions. 1.  It is a mixture of class resentment and moral envy that explains the deep animus against liberal elites on the part of non-elites—an animus that, as much as does racism in my opinion, explains why the abandoned working class of our post-industrial cities has turned to the right.  As bad as (or, at least, as much as) their loss of economic and social status has been their loss of access to meaningful work.  Put them into as many training sessions as you want to transition them to the jobs of the post-industrial economy, you are not going to solve their acute knowledge that these new jobs suck when compared to their old jobs in terms of basic worth.  So they resent the hell out of those who still hold meaningful jobs—and get well paid for those jobs and also have the gall to preach to them about tolerance and diversity.  2.  It is soul-destroying to do work you cannot justify as worth doing.  And what is soul-destroying will lead to aggression, despair, rising suicide rates, drug abuse, and susceptibility to right-wing demagogues.  Pride in one’s work is a sine non qua of a dignified adult life.

The Class/Race/Generation/Political Divide

Back with a little tidbit from Bertrand Russell’s Human Society in Ethics and Politics: “Traditionalists hold their opinions more fanatically than their liberal-minded opponents and therefore have power out of proportion to their numbers.  A man who publicly advocates any relaxation of the traditional code can be made to suffer obloquy, but nothing of the sort can be inflicted upon benighted bigots” (125).

Lots can be said about this—and count on me to say lots.  For starters, we have here the usual contrast between mild-mannered liberals, lacking fire-in-the-blood passion, and visceral conservatives.  The politics of reason versus the politics of passion. “The best lack all conviction, the worst are full of passionate intensity” (Yeats).  I am not very convinced.  More plausible, I think, are explanations that look to “loss aversion” and to the superiority in “reality” of what is over what could be.  In my experience, those proposing reforms always meet with fierce resistance; stepping into the unknown always is based on uncertain gains balanced against very obvious losses.  What will be destroyed by the change is concretely There.  Those who are just fine with current arrangements will have a direct, straight-forward case for outrage.  “Jeopardy” in Albert Hirschman’s anatomy of the “rhetoric of reaction.”  Your changes will jeopardize the good things we enjoy now with no guarantee that what you put in the present’s place will be better.  You, the reformer, are inflicting an easy to identify harm.

Russell believes that “most of the disagreements that occur in practice are, not as to what things have intrinsic value, but as to who shall enjoy them.  The holders of power naturally demand for themselves the lion’s share” (110).  Is this true? That is, are there actually very few deep moral disagreements; rather, the real source of disagreement is about the distribution of the goods that everyone agrees are actually good.  That shifts the moral terrain significantly; the focus becomes who legitimately is entitled to a share and who legitimately can be denied a full share.  I am inclined to think conservatism is always, au fond, about legitimating unequal distribution.  The grounds for cutting some people out—race, meritocracy, education, expertise, various social and moral stigmas, citizenship—vary widely, but the basic goal is the same: to justify inequality.  We fight over the goods–not over what should be designated good.  At least in most instances.  Sounds plausible.

One maddening thing is that unequal distribution could (possibly) be justified by scarcity.  If there was not enough to go around, then some might have to do without.  But there is ample evidence to show that removing the condition of scarcity does little to quell the urge toward unequal distribution.  The drive for status, for hierarchy, for distinction, leads to inequalities as steep and as cruel (i.e. tending to total deprivation) as scarcity.  Russell does not pay much attention to the deep desire for status.  He is no sociologist.  But he believes that the “desire for power” is basically universal, as is the abuse of that power by any who possess it (118).  His only solution to this snake in the garden is sublimation: “to educate in such a manner that acquired skills will lead the love of power into useful rather than harmful channels” (118).  Like Freud and William James, he seeks for a “moral equivalent” of war, competition, status seeking, and the desire to dominate over others.

Not much cause for optimism there.  I do think “loss aversion” can help a bit here, as can a ground-level sense of fairness, of justice.  Russell is not keen on appeals to justice.  “I think that, while the arguments for approximately equal distribution are very strong wherever an ancient tradition is not dominant, they are nevertheless arguments as to means, and I do not think that justice can be admitted as something having intrinsic value on its own account” (117).  The idea is that justice is a means to peace—where peace produces a stable society in which everyone can enjoy the goods they have without fearing the violence of either the strong seekers of power/privilege/wealth/status or the aggrieved violence of the deprived.  Self-interest in such peace and the stability/security it provides is the foundational rock, not some commitment to justice per se.

I think Russell is wrong about that.  I think a disinterested (for lack of a better term) outrage about perceived violations of justice is a much stronger—and independent—motive than he allows.  It is, of course, true that many disputes that claim to be about justice are masking self-interest.  But I do not think that is always to case.  The same psychologists who uncovered “loss aversion” with their ingenious experiments have also noticed that people will be satisfied with less for themselves when a distribution procedure is seen as “fair.”  A real life example is elections.  People accept being on the losing side of a vote if they think the vote was fairly conducted.  One sign of deep trouble in our democracy is the growing refusal to accept the outcome of elections.  When results trump procedures, democracy is in trouble.  Even then, radicals on both sides—left and right—will shout that the vote was not “fair,” that is was fraudulent in one way or another.  A pretty infallible sign of the far-out radical left is the deep conviction that the “real majority” in the US favors the radical’s own program, refusing to countenance all the evidence that the American public is just not that leftist.

I am inclined to believe that those who are driven by an inordinate desire/need for power are a small minority, akin to the small set of adepts that Randall Collins claims can actually commit sustained violence.  (In his book Violence.)  That small number prey on the rest of us.  Our part in life is to try to ward them off, to resist them, and to get on with the business of living.  The powers of resistance are pretty strong; not always sufficient of course but able in many instances to frustrate the seekers of power.  It is not the insecurity of the tyrant that makes him miserable (in my view and pace Plato).  The control of the means of violence is pretty thorough, plus the tyrant’s delusions of grandeur include a sense of immunity to the normal vulnerabilities of the flesh (think of all those 80 year old Senators).  No, what makes the tyrant’s life miserable is the limitations on his power.  Finally, it’s just damned hard to get other people to do what you want them to do.  They resist—passively more often than actively, by not paying attention or doing things half-assedly, or just melting away.  The art of not being governed, as James Scott calls it.  It’s the path that Fred Moten and David Graeber recommend.  Just ignore the tyrant, as far as that is possible.

Or scream bloody murder—like the traditionalists do.  Take the moral high ground whenever any kind of change is proposed.  There were all those artists—Yeats, Proust, Galsworthy, Nietzsche—documenting (often lamenting) the death of the aristocracy as the 19th century became the 20th century.  A privileged class was losing some of its privileges, but more crucially was losing its relevance.  Its material well-being wasn’t threatened, but its right to lead, to set the tone culturally and to direct the nation politically, was slipping away.  Today, it’s white America that is slipping away.  In the popular arts, black America has set the tone for quite some time.  Look at our music and our sports (the NFL and the NBA).  The change has been less swift in film and TV, and even less swift in the non-popular arts like classical music and museum culture.  The difference this time (as contrasted to the period of 1880 to 1920) is that neither the declining class (whites) nor the ascendant one (non-whites) is gaining economically.  Instead, both groups are getting played by the 1% that is hoovering up all the wealth to itself. But the decliners, the traditionalists, are certainly screaming bloody murder.  To a lesser extent, so are the exploited.  (Or maybe they are screaming just as loud, but lack access to the channels–literally Fox and Limbaugh–that would allow their screams to be heard.  The corporate consolidation of American media condemns them to an outer darkness.)

Hence the generalized rage.  The whites has “loss aversion” to the max; they are increasingly irrelevant, feel disrespected, and increasingly insecure financially.  The non-whites, while accorded a certain kind of cultural power and respect (but only within elite circles in New York and Hollywood and, even there, inconsistently), are resolutely kept from getting a decent slice of the pie.  And everyone looks for someone to blame, with the sad, boring, classic American story of getting the poor whites to obsess about their non-white rivals to the advantage of the rich whites.  I wish I had a different story to tell.  Sometimes the truth is astoundingly uninteresting, completely predictable, and apparently immune to any kind of creative rewriting.  It just sits there, an indigestible lump.

No surprise, then, that we turn to the young for an imagined way out of this impasse.  Their much-vaunted sympathy for socialism coupled with their skepticism toward a capitalism that has not served them at all (no less “well”) is seen as the road toward radical transformation.  The radical always relies on a sense that “things can’t continue this way,” that the current arrangements are unsustainable.  But they are unsustainable only if people refuse to countenance, to suffer, them.  And things from my perspective have been intolerable for fifty years now.  And, somehow, little in terms of the basic structures of distribution have changed in the US—except for the worse.

I can’t help but think that American politics are still transfixed by the political, economic, and cultural upheavals of 1965 to 1975.  Just like mainstream economists are still fighting the battle against inflation of the 1970s (unable, apparently, to process that inflation has been a non-issue for Western economies since 2000), so our political fault lines divide along the axis of those who want to return to a mythical 1950s (its prosperity, its blue collar jobs, its women contentedly at home, its blacks out of sight and out of mind, its gays utterly invisible) and those who affirm the various upheavals that brought women, blacks, gays into the public view, with their noisy demands for attention, respect, and their due.  Astounding, really, how traumatic the 1960s were—and how long-lasting (as is the case with traumas) its after-shocks.  The problem is that it is the cultural upheavals (experienced as traumatic by some and liberating by others) that gets all the attention, that generates 90% of the heat.  The economic coup d’etat, every bit as traumatic as the cultural changes, mostly flies under the radar.  The consolidation of economic power never becomes the explicit topic of political inquiry or rhetoric.

Those fiery youth of the 60s did not effect some radical transformation. The few radicals, like some SDSers and Martin Luther King at the end of his life, who tried to “pivot” away from anti-war and pro-civil rights activism toward economic issues (the poor people’s campaign) didn’t get much traction.  (Although we should not forget that something akin to a basic guaranteed income for all was actually debated in Congress in 1971.  How far we have fallen from that high moment.)  Rather, as my daughter likes to remind me, the baby boomers have left the US—and the world—much worse off than they found it.  So I am not likely to place too much faith in the transformative power of today’s youth, even if the generational divide is once again as intense as it was in the “generation gap” years.  Sixties youth, after all, had the insouciance of those who felt immune to economic worry.  No such luck for today’s millennials as they step into the world of contract labor.  Welcome to the precariat.

The lines of this analysis are familiar enough, which (as I say) doesn’t mean they are not (roughly) true.  But David Graeber offers a different way to think of all this—and I will go in that direction in my next post.

Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century

I am about 2/3rds of the way through The Long Twentieth Century, which has been a slog, but also worth the effort.  I will get back to the “life” stuff in subsequent posts, but want to pick up on three points from Arrighi today.

One: Arrighi is a fairly orthodox Marxist in that he firmly believes that economics drives history and, in particular, offers the explanatory causes for all armed conflicts.  Even more fundamentally, he believes that the exigencies of profit are the main drivers of all economic activity.  There is a logic to how and where profit can be made, as well as cycles that move capital from seeking profit through trade to seeking it through financial transactions.  Individual actors in capitalism have few, if any, options.  They must do what profit demands in any particular situation.  The iron laws of capitalism rule.

Interestingly, however, Arrighi recognizes that no profit could even be made if all actors only pursued profit.  Thus, he must posit that some people are otherwise motivated.  If everyone were motivated by profit, trade would come to a standstill because no one would make trades unless able to make a profit—and profit, finally, is a zero-sum game.  It is zero-sum because, unlike the fantasized barter exchange that is equally advantageous because I need eggs and your need clothes, the introduction of money translates all exchanges into the same currency.  I only make a profit if the eggs I exchange for clothes are worth less in monetary terms than the sum you give me, part of which I expend on clothes, the rest of which I pocket as profit. (Kiernan had a friend once who refused to sell any properties in Monopoly because his older sister had so consistently taken advantage of him in the past.  The result was an endless game, because no one could ever go bankrupt if not monopolies ever got formed.  That might prove a functioning economy, but it certainly isn’t a capitalist one.)

So what motivates people besides profit?  Arrighi answer (which, unfortunately, he doesn’t develop at all) is “power and prestige.”  War provides a consistent boon for those seeking profit—and most wars, he seems to think, are actually motivated by the need to protect or to expand sources of profit.  But he does seem to admit that aggrandizement, the quest for power and status apart from profit, can also motivate conflict, competition, and war.  And the profit seekers are more than glad to, in Country Joe’s words, “supply the army with the tools of the trade.”  War is not only a great consumer of merchandise (manufactured goods) but also a major source of debt (i.e. of profits for financial capital).  The potlatch that is war serves profit precisely because it does not seek profit itself, representing a different desire instead, one that cold-eyed profit seekers can exploit.

There are, of course, other ways to seek status besides war—and that leads us to topic number two.

Two: We are familiar with “crises of overproduction,” the paradoxical creation of poverty during economic downturns where the problem is not a scarcity of goods, but a surfeit of them.  Less often noted is the problem of a surfeit of capital, a crisis of “over-accumulation.”  Arrighi is particularly good on this species of crisis, one that seems particularly acute in our day and age.  For starters, the two types of crises can be (although they need not be) related. When markets are saturated, when there is not sufficient demand to meet supply and hence production is slowed because there is too much stuff around and no place to sell it, then capital might also begin to accumulate for lack of any place to invest it.  You can’t put the capital to work because there is no need for increased production.

In this situation, capital will move from production to financial markets.  Arrighi, in fact, believes that this movement from relying on commodities for profits to relying on selling money to make profits is the grand cycle of capitalism, with the movement to finance capital in the world’s dominant economy—first the Italian city-states, then the Dutch, then the British, then the US—marking the moment of transition from one site of dominance to the next.  The newcomer begins by taking over production from its predecessor until it, too, exhausts the profit capacities of production and moves into finance.  In this vision, the US, having moved from production to finance somewhere in the 1970s is in decline, with Asia bidding to become the next hegemonic capitalist site.

One possibility, then, is for capital to move from the former hegemonic site of production (the US) to the new one (China).  But, for fairly obvious reasons, capital is not entirely mobile.  For one thing, nationalist sentiments weigh against allowing the importation of too much “foreign capital.”  There are also risk factors: the worry that foreign lands might not be stable.  And there are transaction costs of moving into a different legal/banking regime and working in a different currency.

For various reasons, then, some (at least) excess capital will desire to stay home.  And that leads to bubbles and to creative “financial instruments” and to Ponzi schemes and other forms of fraud.  The bubbles, I would argue, are always often tied to status.  The inflated value of the “bubbled thing” (if I can invent a term) relies not simply on its supposed ability to be cashed in for a certain sum, but also for the prestige of owning such an expensive, highly valued commodity.  Currently, real estate and art works clearly play this role.  They are great places to park excess money, because they can be rationalized as investments, not just frivolous spending.  But owning a New York apartment or a painting by Monet is also conspicuous consumption.  More bang for the buck: prestige plus a profit to be made.

Another factor drives bubbles, I think.  The search for safety.  That seems paradoxical since bubbles contain enormous risks—if we believe that value must, in the final instance, be tied back to something “real.”  A very different dynamic is at work, I think.  The world is a dangerous, unstable place—and seems more dangerous every day.  (That fear of its dangerousness is, most likely, pretty constant across time.  There are always ample reasons for fear.)  The money being parked in New York and London and Vancouver real estate and in paintings by the masters is money being siphoned out of risky environments and salted away in places perceived as safe.  The American who buys a high-end New York apartment can’t find a better place to invest his excess capital.  The Chinese citizen who does the same is squirreling away his excess capital in a safe place.  Both acquire the prestige of having a place in New York.

The quest for status does lend itself to expenditures that are pretty much complete financial losses: high-end clothes and accessories, fancy vacations.  There is money to be made in the luxury trades and never more so than in times of slack production and excess capital.  Education is a funny hybrid in such times.  It is clearly a prestige item—the fancy prep schools, the elite colleges—but can also be rationalized as an investment.  It is hard to know if the return on investment (given the differential in initial outlay) for going to Harvard exceeds that of going to Grand Rapid State—mostly because the place from which the respective students start is so vastly different that the assessment of eventual outcomes (in terms of income or of other measures of economic well-being) cannot isolate the specific contribution of the degree.  But people love to spend money on things they think can also be justified as “investments.”  One need only look at the immense sums American parents are spending on sports training/competition for their children, justified as possibly leading to that child getting a scholarship to college.

In sum, profit depends on their being other powerful motives that overrule profit for some people.  As Marx put it on the more basic level of the material needs for subsistence, capitalism is in the business of turning your needs into weaknesses that it can exploit. The whole thing doesn’t work if there aren’t some people who do not pursue profit relentlessly and to the exclusion of all else.

Three: Arrighi argues that a major innovation of the American century, the time of its economic hegemony which encompasses the “long twentieth century” of his title, is the modern corporation.  In particular, the modern corporation—think Ford, Exxon, Kodak, Ma Bell—combined mass production with mass marketing.  These companies used the fact of being first in producing some product to gain massive market share by aggressively organizing its distribution and advertising operations.  Newcomers (i.e. potential competitors), Arrighi argues, did not face overwhelming technical obstacles to produce products with the same efficiency as the first-comers.  What the newcomers lacked was a way to crack into the market in sufficient volume to underwrite the capital costs of mass production.  Organizing the market in ways that orient it toward one’s firm is equally as necessary as establishing an efficient mode of production.  Where the two do not co-exist, the firm will not thrive.

On the one hand, this assertion still seems true.  Apple and Google and Amazon are prime examples.  They were, in some ways, technical innovators, although there were certainly personal computer makers in the 1980s who were Apple’s equals, and Amazon never did anything all that innovative technically.  In Arrighi’s words, “the transnational corporations that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries . . . were strictly business organizations [i.e.  were not state/business hybrids like the East India Company and South Africa Company of the British hegemonic period] specialized functionally in a particular line of business across multiple territories and jurisdictions” (250-51).  They integrated “the process of mass production with those of mass distribution within a single organization” (248).

It occurs to me that a similar “crowding out” operates in politics.  The difficulties of forming a “third part” or a new lobbying firm or a new social movement are enhanced by the presence of highly organized players already on the field.  Thus, for example, there is no strong anti-NRA group.  MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) might be a counter-example—and provide a model for those in favor of gun control to follow.  Of course, there was hardly a strong lobby for drunk driving, the way that the NRA is a strong lobby against gun control.  In any case, the advantages of being there first are only secured by also being organized.  An organized player in the field only attracts more resources by virtue of their power and visibility.  And, for that reason, I think (as has been a theme of so many of my musings) that the anarchist love of leaderless, horizontal, non-organized action so prevalent in many radical circles today is a losing strategy.  Organization (money, boots on the ground, a well-articulated set of objectives, and a coherent strategy for advancing toward those objectives, a strategy followed consistently by the organization’s members) will defeat an amorphous protest group every time.

And yet, on the other hand, the whole point of Boltanksi and Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism is that the monster corporations of the middle twentieth century are dinosaurs, too cumbersome to respond quickly and adroitly to rapidly changing conditions on the ground.  IBM is just one poster child (GM and GE are others) for the supposed liabilities of the big firm.  Paired down, focused firms like Toyota, Southwest Airlines, and Dell computers can take on the big boys—and win—because they can keep costs down and quality high.  It is hardly that these successful new firms are unorganized.  But the organization is highly decentralized; responsibility for different aspects of the operation are widely dispersed—including, in many cases, to other firms who, by way of contract, provide key support services or even key component parts.  Such “outsourcing,” whether overseas or domestic, drives down costs, even as it increases accountability.

In politics, then, aspirant newcomers might want to consider how to play the disadvantages of size against the established players, the existing parties.  I must admit I am not sure how that would work.  For all the supposed “down-sizing” of the big dinosaurs in order to become leaner (and definitely meaner), it is not as if market share has changed all that drastically.  Coke and Pepsi still dominate the soft drink business; the big breweries buy up craft breweries almost as quickly as Apple and Google buy out any possible competitors.  I guess I would say that today’s firms are less uptight than the GM of 1950 about the need to do everything in-house, the need to be the employer of record of everyone whose work was needed to make the company function.  But today’s firms are even more obsessed with controlling the market.  Hence the endless customer satisfaction research.

Enough for now.  The big question still looms—as it always does for me.  What causes (there were obviously several) explain the “return of ruthless capitalism.”  Why were labor costs and profit levels that were deemed satisfactory in 1960 were no longer acceptable to capitalists in 1980?

Mobility (continued) and Neoliberalism

There is something more than a little fraudulent about the celebration of—and high valuation placed on—mobility, akin to all the nonsense about risk and taking chances that accompany the current vogue of the entrepreneur.  Innovation, like mobility, is almost most fully and effectively activated when underwritten by security.  The dirty secret of the mobile agent’s manipulation of her mobility to command additional income or resources is that she is not paralyzed—or even much threatened by—the threat of becoming redundant in her current place.  Of course, not all mobile actors in the neoliberalism have tenure, but they do have relevant guarantors of income and employment.  Again, this suggests a “real” basis for their mobility, a set of skills, experiences, and achievements on which they can bank.

Boltanski and Chiapello (B&C) tell us (pp. 16-17) and elsewhere the demands that a successful “spirit of capitalism” must meet if it is to satisfy people in the way of giving them motivations to participate.  There are four major “demands” for “justification” (and, in their schema, “tests” must be devised to show that the demands are being met.) 1. Demand for justice (a): capitalism must be underwritten by a plausible claim that its processes advance the common good, not just the needs/desires of a particular group (i.e. the capitalists). 2. Demand for justice (b): there must be a plausible account of the inequities capitalism produces, so that those inequities are not seen as the direct (and sole) result of exploitation.  There has to be a story (usually based on merit—which includes talent, effort, educational credentials etc.) about why some people get more than others.  3. Autonomy: there has to be an account of how capitalism is connected to, even productive of, freedom.  That is, how it liberates people from dependencies characteristic of feudalism, paternalism, or traditional societies, and how it opens up pathways to self-fulfillment (choosing one’s own career, developing one’s own talents, pursuing one’s own interests.) 4. Capitalism must explain how it provides basic security, the means toward life for oneself and one’s children.

A good list, even a convincing one, even if (as I have mused before) the ruthless capitalism of 2018 seems hardly bothered to try to justify itself.  Except for the meritocratic arguments for inequality and some half-hearted hand-waving about how the “job creators” enable the common good of a flourishing economy, not much in the way of capitalist apologetics gets much air-time these days.  The threat of unemployment or underemployment does all the heavy lifting these days.  Get with the program—or join the ranks of the “excluded,” whose lives we will make as miserable as possible.

But even someone more sympathetic to the justifications of neoliberalism (justifications that I not only find hard to credit, but which I believe most people take with a full helping of salt), there are very few who would claim that neoliberalism offers security.  Just the opposite.  Our fullest-throated advocates of neoliberalism scorn security as a danger; it produces complacency and nothing is more fatal to economic success than resting on your laurels in an endlessly dynamic process that is only getting faster all the time.  The number of cautionary tales—as Kodak, Blackberry, record companies, and taxis—about businesses that become obsolete are mobilized to dismantle all forms of security, any commitments—to people, places, processes, products—that extend beyond the short term.

One point: it is a lie to say that mobility is won by foregoing security.  Instead, in the tales I win, heads you lose logic of neoliberalism, mobility is rewarded even though it is only the secure who can afford (in every sense of the word) to be mobile.  The ones penalized for not being mobile are also the ones from whom security (in what Hacker and Pierson call “the great risk shift”) has been taken away.

In their emphasis on mobility, B&C stand at a tangent from other accounts of neoliberalism.  The dominant accounts usually emphasize two things:

  1. The increasing colonization of various spheres of activity/life by economic rationales (meant both as the vocabulary used to describe the interactions within those spheres and the rational reorganization of those spheres in the name of efficiency and of “monetizing” them). B&C do devote considerable attention to this feature of neoliberalism.  “Capitalism has thus wrested a freedom of maneuver and commodification it has never previously achieved since, in a world where all differences are admissible, but they are all equivalent precisely as equivalents, nothing is worth protecting from commodification by mere virtue of its existence and everything, accordingly, will be the object of commerce” (466).


  1. The second feature usually identified as crucial to neoliberalism is privatization, its robbery of the common, now put to the service of private profit. Just as the private equity raiders strip the assets of the company’s they purchase, so neoliberalism also plunders public goods, making a profit out of services previously rendered by the state (prisons, sanitation, education, transportation, utilities) while also encroaching on public lands and off-loading to the state the costs of pollution and unemployment.


How are these two features of neoliberalism related, if at all, to the extreme valuation of mobility that B&C place at the center of their analysis?  Surprisingly, they don’t ask this question themselves.  In the first case (of the hegemony of economic logics/discourse over all other modes of organizing activities or articulating values), a tentative connection might be made if the economics stresses the “creative destruction” that Schumpeter famously attributed to capitalism.  In that scenario, to stand still is to court disaster.  You always need to be one step ahead of the pack, dismantling your own operations before a hostile competitor does it for you.  Back to our motto: be mobile or perish.

I think the connection is harder to make in the second instance (privatization).  In fact, privatization is, it seems to me, directly connected to the stationary, the persistent.  Prisons, sanitation, transportation etc. are constants, needs that are always going to be there and which are never exhausted by being satisfied today.  They are needs that must be met again tomorrow.  It is precisely this repetitive and necessary character that made them seem like appropriate services for the state to provide.  And it is their fixed character—both fixed in place (the garbage needs to be picked up here, not somewhere overseas) and in need (the garbage needs picking up this week and next and the week after that)—that make them a safe and attractive target for capitalism (which always claims to love risk and, in fact, hates to put down its chips in any place where the odds aren’t in its favor).

In short, I think B&C are a bit credulous.  They don’t pay enough heed to capitalism’s hypocrisies.  Don’t just look at what capitalism says (in the management manuals that serve as their archive), but also at what it does.

My next post will look at B&C’s proposed responses to the wholesale suffering that capitalism, in its current form, doles out so nonchalantly.