20 December 2012

Anti-egalitarianism in America

The new Journal of American History includes Alice Kessler-Harris's presidential address, "Capitalism, Democracy and the Emancipation of Belief." A labor historian, Kessler-Harris gave her audience a quick survey of changing attitudes toward inequality in American history. Her premise is that recent times have abandoned a traditional belief in balance between liberty and equality, influential forces favoring liberty with the least regard permissible for equality. The Founders, she notes, recalled a classical political tradition that saw great concentrations of wealth as inevitable threats to liberty. They also thought of wealth primarily in terms of land, John Adams saying "the balance of power in a society accompanies the balance of property in land," while Noah Webster called "a general and tolerably equal distribution of land ... the whole basis of national freedom." She takes the point a little too far, however, in suggesting that the Founders supported redistributionist policies. If anything, the classical tradition taught them to dread what they called "agrarian" laws designed to redistribute lands. Rather than maintain equality by taking from the rich, the Founders expected equality to result from multitudes claiming their plots of land on the frontier. Their heirs in the early Republican party wanted to block slavery's westward expansion because they feared that slaveholders would divide the west into huge plantations, shutting out the idealized yeoman farmer. Still, it's definitely worth emphasizing that the Founders -- at least some of them -- considered excessive wealth and extreme inequality problems for a republic. But as wealth grew more concentrated in industrial plants and banks, simply calling for more people to own land seemed inadequate to new, unprecedented inequality. Here the Progressives stepped in, demanding pragmatic compromises from the robber barons and captains of industry. In Kessler-Harris's summary, Progressives and their liberal descendants "sought to convince the business classes that to maximize their access to profits, they would need a peaceful and cooperative public realm," on the understanding that "capitalism could not survive without the support and cooperation of those who served it." Capitalists were to submit to regulation in the workers' interests on the understanding that it was all ultimately in their interests as well. A "liberal compromise" implemented regulations and tax-funded social programs while maintaining "a stronger commitment to liberty of the marketplace than did European counterpart plans." The U.S. still depended upon capital-driven economic growth to make life better for most people, but undertook some regulations to help make sure it did so. At the same time, while capitalists played ball, Americans constantly affirmed the value of "liberty" against the threat of communism. But by doing so, Kessler-Harris suggests, the liberal establishment of the mid-20th century allowed a seed to grow that led to its undoing. Believing herself that anticommunism "served to restrain the spread of democratic ideas," she argues that the rhetoric of liberty grew increasingly hostile to the idea of equality. Through a kind of dialectic, American ideals of liberty once thought reconcilable with at least a vague commitment to equality grew irreconcilable to the extent that equality was identified with communism, totalitarianism, and excessive state power in general. Kessler-Harris overstates this to the extent that she accuses a new "neoliberal orthodoxy" of hostility to the "public good," since neoliberals certainly thought that their policies most conducive, if not exclusively so, to the public good as they understood it. But her point stands if we agree that the "neoliberal" idea of the "public good" required less equality than was deemed necessary in the past.

Kessler-Harris closes by noting that the relationship between equality, wealth and democracy remains in flux and is under pressure from increasing criticism of the role of money in elections. Whether the U.S. can return to its midcentury equilibrium is unlikely to the extent that global competition has shrunk the size of the pie capital could distribute to loyal workers. Egalitarians will more likely have to look further back for models of action. If capital (or its most dogmatic advocates) are to be swayed, it will more likely be for pragmatic than principled reasons, as they were, arguably, in the past. Implicit in my quotations from Kessler-Harris are threats. The "need [for] a peaceful and cooperative public realm" implies no peace without compromise from capital; the need for "support and cooperation" implies that workers could withhold these with severe consequences for capital. Such compromises were certainly resented from the beginning if capitalists were convinced of the moral superiority of their own position. If anything, generations of anti-communist, anti-totalitarian and anti-statist rhetoric have probably hardened moral objections to compromises of principle for mere safety's sake. Why should they have to submit to such interference, why give up what is rightly theirs, because of implied threats? Because politics is, ideally, the prevention of any violence, not the institution of any ideology. Capitalists may prefer that workers practice reasonable submission to their management but cannot take such submission for granted and ought to have alternative plans short of violence. Some would say they've found the alternatives: outsourcing and layoffs. But these tactics simply defer a day of reckoning and may only shift the burden from the same people as employers to the same people as (equally resentful) taxpayers. Capital will have to deal with these people at some time or another, in some way or another. How much violence, if they prefer that, is principle worth? That's the argument for pragmatic compromise, and if you can put the authority of the Founders on top of it, all the better. If those Founders were right who claimed that extreme concentrations of wealth and resulting inequality subvert republics, it can be proven in two ways: by the consolidation of power under an undemocratic plutocracy, or in literal class war that results in nothing for anyone. In either case, does it matter more who's right on some moral plane or that we make the sacrifices of principle or interest necessary to prevent tyranny and violence. If anything has changed in modern times to make compromise more difficult, it may be business's faith that workers will submit short of violence, that workers are either rational enough to understand when they should submit or too stupid to resist effectively. But why take chances? One way or another, the practicality of high American egalitarianism -- the belief in a decent minimum standard of living for Americans -- needs to be reinforced for those who've grown skeptical.    

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"the Founders supported redistributionist policies."

Well, actually, they did. Who owned the land they expanded into as they moved westward? How did they obtain that land?

Our founders and their predecessors completely believed in the redistribution of land - from those who were indigenous - to those who were "followers" of the founders (ie, American citizens). If that isn't a complete redistribution of wealth, I'm not sure what is.