Originally published on: July 20th, 2020
|Fig. 1: Stores burning in Chicago after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 (Briscoe, Olumhense and James, 2018)|
The first impression Alexis de Tocqueville had about the United States in the 1830s was one of chaos, compared to the rigid social structures in Europe. However, after further examination, he viewed that American life was far more stable than what he initially thought – the rigid social structure and aristocracy in Europe were not necessary for a functioning society. Whilst de Tocqueville was intrigued about this apparent stability, he also wrote about a darker future, one where democracy could not effectively mitigate the problems embedded in the fault lines of the country (Runciman, 2020) and lead to periods of significant strife and rapid change. 1968 was one of these periods. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., historic riots and protests consumed the country, and due to the assassination of Robert Kennedy two months later, the general election ended up being between a relatively uninspiring Democratic Vice President and a law-and-order Republican galvanised by the ‘silent majority’. As this was happening, a pandemic killed at least 100,000 Americans. Evidently, 2020 will also be viewed as one of these periods of strife.
Whilst these are crude comparisons, they can also be useful for gauging how to handle the current crises of similar proportion, and to know that improvements can be made through meaningful reform and that revolution is not needed. It is comforting to know that the current pandemic is temporary and we will likely be back to normality by this time next year, but also disconcerting to consider the possibility that lessons may not be learned, and we may confront similar crises in another generation. In an ideal society non-merit factors should have no effect on the amount a person can work, can learn, can earn and support their family, but they do. Not only race, but discrimination by gender, sexuality, religion, and other non-merit factors all bastardise the reality of the liberal, meritocratic ideals to which the vast majority of us ascribe to. For thousands of years, there has been oppression targeting these characteristics, with pseudo-economic and pseudo-scientific explanations. In societies where the majority of capital and power is concentrated in a relatively tiny amount of people, the prejudices of plutocrats, kleptocrats and monarchs directed large amounts of money in the economy towards reaffirming these prejudices. This isn’t only a phenomenon of ancient history. It can clearly be observed in North Korea right now, where a dictatorship that controls all of the capital in the country has made sure much of the population (that we are allowed to see) is hostile to the outside world and gearing up for World War III (CNN, 2018). In essence, those who control the means of production can enforce their beliefs on the base of the economic system, be it through slavery or more subtle discrimination, which then leads to these views getting passed on to the superstructure and in wider society, which then works to reinforce the economic base (means of production) in a vicious cycle.
I am writing here specifically about the problems in the United States, but this article also draws upon a range of examples from around the world and on different strains of inequality to explore paths to move forward towards a more equitable America and a more equitable world.
Chattel slavery was so important in the US between 1619 and 1865 (Shah and Adolphe, 2019) that around the turn of the 19th century, the total value of slaves was close to three times the collective output of the economies in the US South at the time, and they comprised nearly half of all capital held there (Piketty and Goldhammer, 2014). This is more than all of the real estate taken together over all of the two million kilometres2 in the South. Whilst the majority of slaves were held on plantations growing cash crops, they were also being rented out their slaves to poor farmers to work on their land whilst churches, orphanages and schools also rented out slaves to fund local projects (Zaborney & Wood, 2013). The practice of slavery truly was the bedrock of the antebellum South. This economic base was then reinforced by discrimination against African Americans in wider society through misleading school textbooks, a censored press and mail being intercepted (Mugleston, 1974). Despite the freedoms outlined in the Constitution, nothing of the sort existed south of the Mason-Dixon Line, even for the supposedly free people that lived there leading up to the Civil War. To protect the interests of the small minority that had much of the political and economic power, the powerful increasingly closed off the South from the North, with ‘unorthodox thinkers’ being ostracised and those with the means to do so, moving north, and those without, trying to rationalise an evil system (Mugleston, 1974). But what does evil mean in this sense? Without getting overly philosophical, the idea of slavery is appalling and overtly evil – but its survival relies on conformity. Historically, the continuing success of economies predicated on oppression does not rely on profound wickedness by everyone participating, but from the willful ignorance of enough of the conformist, supposedly free population. It is thoughtlessness that drives these systems, where, like a tree, as the system ages and the roots become more entrenched, the prejudice becomes harder to uproot. 242 years after 1619, in 1861, the uprooting finally came, and 620,000 people died in the bloodiest war in American history.
This conformism is clear throughout other abhorrent epochs. Whilst in Jerusalem reporting on the trial of Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt wrote about the ‘Banality of Evil’. She observed evil not to be fanatic, terrible, or satanic, but to be thoughtless. Eichmann did not claim that he was innocent in what did, he claimed that he was just another cog in the system, with Arendt observing not a powerful, satanic force, but an empty, thoughtless vessel for the Nazi government to employ (BBC Radio 4, 2020). Unfortunately, in the past century, there was never enough popular opposition to dictatorships within their borders to actually mount a significant challenge to the regime until after much damage had been done, be it in Russia, in China, in Germany, in Chile, and all throughout the world. To prevent these abhorrations, we cannot rely on the people, but on the constraints within the legal, political, and economic frameworks to snuff out extremist, oppressive movements.
Today, the only path for the success of intrinsically oppressive regimes in the modern world is through extending the arms of the state and trying to dominate as much of life as possible, which is what the Soviet government did for nearly 70 years until it collapsed in 1991. This demise was in large part due to the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, which tentatively gave more freedoms to the Soviet people and opened up the economy (Gitomirski, n.d.). As soon as Gorbachev gave an inch in initiating Glasnost, the people of Eastern Europe took a mile and their countries back in 1989. The Soviet Union collapsed after Gorbachev tried to open it up incrementally whilst the government was on the path to spending itself to oblivion and the agricultural sector was collapsing; totalitarian and oppressive regimes cannot survive without complete opacity and control.
As explored, oppression and the induction of prejudices among the population is usually initiated top-down, both politically and economically. Therefore, instead of a dominant one per cent, the middle and working classes should hold the majority of economic and political power. A socialist revolution is not needed and looking back through history would show us that it would not work in removing discrimination along non-merit factors. In the past, so-called ‘worker’s revolutions’ have not succeeded in lessening discrimination along these factors due to successive Socialist and Communist governments in the 20th century scapegoating particular groups to keep the majority on side. Stalin worked through the Soviet newspaper Pravda to propagate the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in the early 1950s, where a vicious smear campaign was launched by state media and thousands of Jewish doctors were tortured to give false confessions (Kalfus, 2016). If only for Stalin’s death in 1953 there could have been a Pogrom like those seen a century before in the Russian Empire (Rhodes, 1986).
Whilst that was nearly 70 years ago, on July 6th, 2020, the International Criminal Court was urged to investigate the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang and Tibet on counts of genocide and crimes against humanity (Simons, 2020). It is evident that most politically extreme states (far-left or far-right) of the past century have in common a general obsession over the ideology they ascribe to – an often-deadly obsession that leads to the repression of civil liberties for individual groups or the population as a whole. When capital and political power is concentrated in too small a group, what has been outlined can happen. Sky-high levels of wealth inequality are evidently antithetical to freedom, equality of opportunity and economic prosperity. This isn’t to say that the US isn’t unequal or exploitative, far from it, but this is a case for regulated markets to play a central role in the US economy, rather than the state. Many inequalities can be reformed out of mixed economies when there is a real concerted effort to do so, either through government programs or market regulation. In the late 1960s, President Johnson’s central domestic policy campaign was to eradicate poverty, and whilst certainly not perfect, the rate of poverty dropped by 10% from 22% to 12% from 1960 to 1970 and remains at the same level today (Census Bureau, 2018); if there is the political will to do so, combined with a concerted effort, the US government could legislate away many unfair inequalities.
This is the moral imperative as to why over-reaching state control cannot be a part of a stable, equitable society. As people have different opinions and ascribe to different political beliefs in any society, the group that hold different views to the government will naturally be repressed. Leaving the politics of it aside, mixed economies in the twentieth century had been shown to be more productive than planned economies; West Germany prospered whilst East Germany lagged behind and the USSR never was able to converge to the levels of productivity seen in the US (Harrison, 2017). When the economy fails and workers cannot find new jobs because the people the system relies on can’t afford to give them. In the 1980s an anonymous worker in the Soviet Union summed up the reality behind the Iron Curtain saying, ‘they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work’ (Watkins, n.d.). Competitive but regulated markets are therefore necessary for a free, and egalitarian (in terms of opportunity) society. The ability for you to be able to feed your family and satisfy your desires should be reliant as much as possible on one’s own merit.
From what I’ve explored, the type of society that the US should strive towards needs to be as meritocratic as possible. Whilst the term ‘meritocracy’ was coined in 1958 by Michael Young, the idea isn’t new at all. The belief that a person’s station in society should come about as a combination of hard work and talent is ancient and even in this unique political climate, it is hardly a divisive idea. However, the manifestation of these beliefs over the past 200 years does not resemble the original ideals at all and have only tried to create some semblance of what they advocated. When Young wrote ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’, it wasn’t positive, or idyllic but rather a warning to recognise what had gone wrong with the tri-partite education system in the UK at the time (Young, 2001). Due to the weight put on the 11+ exams, children had much of their future and education plans be contingent on how they performed throughout primary school. Putting aside that no primary-school-age children should have undue stress and pressure placed upon them, it obviously entrenches social biases for those families who can afford to tutor their children or put them through private schools. This is the core issue here regarding a meritocracy, that being of the barriers that reduce fluidity and social mobility amongst classes.
Divine right to rule and patronage was the law of the land for centuries in Europe until the Seven Years War (1756-1763) signalled the end. The widespread conflict and destruction lead to the American, French, Haitian and a whole host of other revolutions up until 1848 as their respective authoritarian rulers were weakened and penniless. At the same time, the First Industrial Revolution was completely changing the way that people worked and lived, first in the United Kingdom, but then in Germany and the United States, before spreading all over the world. However, as capitalism emerged, social mobility did not follow. Business magnates like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan took up dominating roles in the US, being able to pass their wealth down from generation to generation with descendants of these men holding important roles in industry, politics and business in the US throughout the 20th and start of the 21st century. Right now, 70% of the wealth held is concentrated into the top 10% of people (DeCambre, 2019), a greater share than in France in the years leading up to the revolution (Morrison and Snyder, 2000); rulers lost their right to rule from God and gained their right to rule from the markets, with social classes still entrenched and relatively immobile.
Amongst the social barriers that are enemies to the meritocracy, the most vicious seems to be vast levels of inherited wealth. In the US, the median wealth of a White family has increased from 110,000 dollars to 146,000 dollars between 1983 and 2016, whilst in the same time period, the median wealth of an African-American family has decreased from just 7,000 dollars to 3,500 dollars, an absolutely stark reality, a result that has come about over centuries of oppression (Inequality.org, 2020). Every child born has the same right to not be born into poverty, but no child has more of a right than another to not be able to work a day in their lives. John Rawls wrote about the ‘Original Position’, where people would be completely unaware of all their social characteristics and would be randomly placed at either end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Generally, people would choose for the wealth distribution to be far closer together than it currently is right now, and for there to be a far stronger middle class for fear of being immediately born into poverty. 92% of Americans surveyed want a far more equitable distribution of wealth (Politizane, 2012), and the simple but politically difficult thing to do is to introduce a wealth tax and to lower the threshold on which people have to pay inheritance tax. The revenue then generated from these could go on towards funding healthcare and education, which is the silver bullet for all of society’s problems. Increasing access to education and healthcare would improve then increase the standard of living, whilst decreasing the proportion of rich people who are born into their stations and proportionally increasing the number of people who attained their wealth through hard work. On top of this, they would constantly have to keep working effectively up as their wealth would otherwise decrease without investing it, incentivising people to work harder and giving an overall benefit to society. Among the historically crowded field vying for the Democratic nomination, few were stronger than Elizabeth Warren. One of the pillars of her campaign was for a wealth tax on those whose net assets were above 50 million dollars. Calculations were done by the Warren campaign which estimated that 4 trillion dollars in revenue could be generated by this tax, which could go towards increasing funding for healthcare and education, which is the true silver bullet for all of society’s problems. The standard of living in the US could increase, the hollowed middle class could be replenished from its glory days in the 1960s and 70s, only now with greater racial equality than 50 years ago. Implementing these taxes wouldn’t be government overreach, but the progenitors of a far more competitive market. Whilst there currently isn’t the political will for such a plan, after the election this November, anything is possible, as we have definitely seen over the past 4 years.
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