Rugged Egalitarianism – Hope in the Ruins

By Dan Kervick

As I write, American conservatism has gone mad: openly, disturbingly and resoundingly bats. There is no mistaking it. But the furious imprecations and cracked laughter of the lunatic conservatives echoing loudly down the halls of our sad American bedlam have helped obscure the fact that liberalism in the United States is moribund.  While conservatives strive to tear down our rotten and unjust system and replace it with something even more terrifying, liberals offer nothing but a determination to patch up some of the superficial rot while approving the general injustice.

Entered in evidence: Paul Krugman takes issue with Peggy Noonan’s recent assertion that the Republican Party is a party of roiling intellectual ferment and new ideas, while the Democratic Party has nothing novel to offer. Krugman plausibly, though pedantically, resists seeing the radical right ideas of the contemporary Republican Party as genuinely new, since most of those ideas go back at least to the mid-1990’s. But does Krugman then argue that the Democratic Party does represent the new thinking in America? Hardly. Krugman acknowledges the stolid and unflappable consistency of orthodox Democratic Party thinking, but extols that intellectual stagnation as a virtue:

Am I saying, then, that Democrats are the party of new ideas? No, not at all. Democrats are for progressive taxation, a stronger safety net, more effective financial regulation, and more environmental protection — none of it stuff that would have seemed strange or new to someone who somehow missed the past few decades.

But then, why exactly should we expect lots of new ideas in policy? Yes, economic change does sometimes change the ground rules. But this is a very slow process most of the time.

This is a depressingly bland attitude, coming as it does from one of the chief economic opinion shapers in the Democratic Party, but it is standard fare for Krugman who has always seemed quite dispositionally averse to social change. Krugman is satisfied on the whole with the neoliberal society he and his intellectual cohort helped build for us, and offers few ideas for social betterment beyond some added padding for the safety net and a few additional regulations here and there. Of course, the world looks pretty good from an office at Princeton University, so why expect calls for re-ordering social arrangements to come from any such quarters?

If the economic crisis of advanced western capitalism that began in 2007 and 2008, along with the particularly intense socio-economic unraveling that the crisis has revealed and accelerated in the United States, are not enough to shake middle-aged Democrats like Krugman out of their complacency and prompt them to engage in innovative thinking, one wonders what it will take. It appears that the Democratic Party in 2013 is now a quite conservative party, seeking to do no more than defend and stabilize a deeply flawed system that has existed now for several decades. Mainstream Democrats embody the End of History attitudes that were once promoted by Francis Fukuyama. They see the neoliberal capitalism that was perfected in the 80’s and 90’s as the omega point of socio-economic development. That’s why Krugman and his like-minded confreres are obsessed with debates about macroeconomic stabilization policy, the possible sets of economic tools that might be applied to restore order and vigor to an economic system that has undergone a “shock”. They differ from their political and professional opponents only about the best means for bringing the established system back to standard operating condition while shoring up a few defects here and there. The gross inequality and systemic social oppression and exploitation that are inextricably fused to neoliberal capitalism in its day-to-day functioning have no obvious purchase on their consciences.

I think it is fair to say that Krugman reflects the thinking of the established Democratic Party in all of its magnificent torpidity and Belle Epoque nostalgia for the Clintonian 90’s. It is hard to think of a more influential pundit in Democratic opinion circles, a person more prominent in defining the socioeconomic attitudes of those who think of themselves as “liberal”. But what is modern liberalism? Sometimes it seems to be nothing more than a doctrine that looks forward to an endless succession of unimaginative and co-opted Barack Obamas petitioning and bribing the Penny Pritzkers of the world to get the latter to chip into the established safety net systems. And why? So that someday there will be no Penny Pritzkers? So that someday nobody will even remember what food stamps were, and why they were needed? No. Modern liberalism is a system for preserving and managing neo-feudal inequality by giving the working poor and workless poor just enough of the plutocrats’ crumbs to keep them numb and obedient. This is Charity-state Liberalism,  based on the condescending notion of a “safety net” for the miserable failures who have fallen off the rickety Social Darwinist scaffolding of soaring American capitalism. Charity-state liberals don’t seek an end to inequality and systemic oppression: they need the struggling and the wretched to gratify their self-esteem and dignify their limited moral gestures.

This is not to say that charity-state liberalism and ruthless hard-right individualism are morally equivalent. The man who gives a dollar to the homeless begger can feel justifiable moral self-satisfaction when faced with the resentful, mean-spirited cuss who wants to grab that dollar back. But if neither one is really doing anything to elevate the fortunes, status, dignity and full democratic equality of that begger, both are complicit in the perpetuation of injustice and oppression. The cause of social progress in the United States is thus partly smothered beneath a conflict between a radical reactionary party of the far right and a conservative party of the center right.

Progressive thinkers of the past believed in the possibility of a future society based on economic equality, vibrant democracy and social fraternity. But frankly, I get the impression that most well-educated liberals of 2013 are dyed-in-the-wool innatists who believe that they occupy the top rungs of God’s (or Nature’s) own natural genetic hierarchy in the Great Ladder of Being, and that economic inequality simply reflects the providential order of things. They have not the slightest intention of climbing down even one economic rung if that is the price of social equality. And calls for greater equality, democracy and social solidarity frighten them, since such visions threaten the niches of privilege that they now occupy.

Not all of the liberal economists of Krugman’s generation are as comfortable with the old gloves of 20th century liberalism as Krugman himself seems to be. Joseph Stiglitz, for example, has been developing a deep critique of economic inequality and its ramifications for our economy. Stiglitz develops these ideas at length in his 2011 book The Price of Inequality and sounds the alarm in a recent New York Times piece:

Last year, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 22 percent of the nation’s income; the top 0.1 percent, 11 percent. Ninety-five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent. Recently released census figures show that median income in America hasn’t budged in almost a quarter-century. The typical American man makes less than he did 45 years ago (after adjusting for inflation); men who graduated from high school but don’t have four-year college degrees make almost 40 percent less than they did four decades ago.

American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulations on the financial sector. That’s no coincidence. It has worsened as we have under-invested in our infrastructure, education and health care systems, and social safety nets. Rising inequality reinforces itself by corroding our political system and our democratic governance.

For these reasons, I see us entering a world divided not just between the haves and have-nots, but also between those countries that do nothing about it, and those that do. Some countries will be successful in creating shared prosperity — the only kind of prosperity that I believe is truly sustainable. Others will let inequality run amok. In these divided societies, the rich will hunker in gated communities, almost completely separated from the poor, whose lives will be almost unfathomable to them, and vice versa. I’ve visited societies that seem to have chosen this path. They are not places in which most of us would want to live, whether in their cloistered enclaves or their desperate shantytowns.

Stiglitz’s focus is on our economic lives. But more needs to be done to extend the critique of inequality beyond the economic realm into the social and political spheres, and to advance a vision of an achievable better world. I have recently begun to articulate a set of ideas I call “rugged egalitarianism”. When I started the blog of that name, I announced that the purpose of the blog was

… to rekindle the dream of human social and economic equality; the vision of a society based on the ideals of equally shared burdens in the work of producing and governing an improving world and equally shared enjoyment of the fruits of that productive activity.  The egalitarianism I will promote is rugged, because it will be difficult to achieve, difficult to keep and unavoidably imperfect in its realization.  It will require challenging feats of public enterprise, a mature acceptance of the need for governance and social organization, and the willingness to confront decrepit status quo institutions and power structures.

Rugged egalitarianism is a work in progress.  I don’t see it as something I have invented, but rather as an attempt to give more shape to ideas that have begun to emerge from many quarters in response to the economic wreckage of the 2008 collapse, and in opposition to the social and political decadence of the mainstream political parties and cultural elites. But some of the policy ideas and broader themes that characterize rugged egalitarianism as I have described it so far can be set down quickly.  Rugged egalitarianism seeks:

¤ A single, publicly-funded health care system for everyone, with care dispensed on the basis of need, not social rank or quantity of personal wealth.

¤ Reduction in the size of the financial sector, with the role of financial rent-seeking and Ponzi activity aggressively curtailed, and an end to the obscene levels of personal compensation squeezed our of the economy by some financial professionals.

¤ A fairer distribution of the value that is created by productive enterprise, with a much higher return going to labor than is currently the case, and a much smaller share going to capital.

¤ A commitment to 100% full employment: the federal government must be engaged in the ongoing organization of flexible and well-run public enterprises that are prepared to offer a job to every person willing and able to work, and for whom the private sector has not generated a job.

¤ An expanded role for strategic public investment in the future of our society, with a new mission-oriented emphasis on deliberately building a future that we democratically choose, in contrast with the old disposition to accept passively whatever society a disorganized mob of profiteering sensation-gratifiers might happen to muddle us into.

¤ An incomes policy, including such measures as maximum wage legislation, a sharply increased minimum wage or floor income, income subsidies where needed, and a compensation ratio setting a limit on the largest permissible gap between the highest and lowest paid workers in a firm.

¤ Re-invigorated democracy at all levels – local, state and federal – with innovative new forms of participation and engaged governance, and reduction in the role of poorly accountable managerial elites.

¤ Democratization of corporate governance, and promotion of innovative and more dignified forms of workplace organization.

¤ Expansion of public education, including public educational opportunities that are offered intermittently across the lifespan to adapt our society to a new world in which the most relevant skills and forms of knowledge evolve rapidly. The cost of educating our young people must be borne by the whole society, and not thrown onto the backs of those young people themselves, indenturing them to debt when they are just starting out.  And all people must have access to the full riches of our culture and an education befitting the role and dignity of a fully responsible citizen. A society that embraces rugged egalitarianism tolerates no castes.

¤ Public finance should be reformed so that monetary and fiscal operations are more effectively and efficiently combined, and so that the full potential of the public’s monetary authority can be intelligently brought to bear on financing the development of our society and the management of our government.

¤ A reorganization of work, including a move to a standard four-day work week in the formal economic sectors so that more time is opened up for all of us to fulfill the responsibilities of democratic participation in community self-government. Maintaining a functioning participatory democracy is hard work, and we must provide ourselves with the time needed to do that work.

¤ An expansion of the public role in retirement support, and a corresponding decrease in the role of private pensions and private savings plans.

¤ A restoration of civilized, democratic self-government among responsible and mutually-committed citizens, and a rolling back of oppressive elite surveillance, spying, prying and external control.

¤ A cultural renaissance insisting on a confinement of commercial relationships and interactions to a more limited and appropriate domain, and a new flourishing and flowering of the humane sphere of life that is currently choked by all-embracing, philistine commercialization of society.

¤ An assault on plutocracy as it exists presently, and a standing, vigilant commitment to combat the excessive concentrations of wealth that can lead to the re-emergence of plutocracy in the future. The control of wealth is equivalent to control of the means of satisfying human desires and needs.  So concentrated personal wealth will always carry with it concentrated political power.  A ruggedly egalitarian society must resist the formation of that kind of concentrated personal and corporate power, and act quickly to dismantle it when it does form.

Rugged egalitarianism clearly comprises an ambitious social, political and economic agenda. It is not just a short-term platform for the next election but a long-term vision and project for the next generation – and perhaps the generations beyond that. It rejects both the decadent stagnation of modern liberalism and the reactionary movements of the modern right. It asks people to reawaken the ancient dream of human equality and to adopt social, economic and political equality as a program for social transformation.  It calls on us to embrace the ideals of solidarity, democracy, work, and equality; to seek a society in which the work burdens of producing a decent social life are shared equally, along with the benefits of the life that is produced. And it enjoins us to promote the moral and social values conducive to these noble aims, and find ways to embody those values in our own lives.  It is an organizing principle for dedicated action, and its ideals cannot be realized without the committed participation of artists and intellectuals, young and old, workers and managers, the fortunate and the unfortunate.

I believe the ideals of rugged egalitarianism are emerging from the ruins of a collapsing and exhausted political culture. What now needs to be seen is whether affluent, socially privileged and educationally advantaged liberals will have the courage to join the struggle, shake off the inegalitarian and elitist neoliberalism of recent decades, and embrace the more ambitious leveling ideals of economic and political democracy.

Cross-posted from Rugged Egalitarianism

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