19 March 2014

Inequality is confusing

Thomas Frank actually agrees with many politicians and economists who believe that inequality is the great problem of our time. In his view, it's such a great problem that the word "inequality" is inadequate to express it. The word is too dry, insufficiently visceral; it describes a state of being rather than the process that got us there.

Start with the word itself: Like “neoliberalism,” another favorite lefty term for many of these same developments, “inequality” is confusing. It is euphemistic and aloof. It gets easily muddled with other, similar-sounding issues like marriage equality, gender equality and equal housing opportunity. Its tone is also needlessly clinical, giving the whole debate a technical and bloodless air.

Frank would like to return to the more forceful rhetoric of a century and more ago, when old-school populists and progressives openly asserted that inequality happened when the rich stole from the poor. He offers an 1892 sample:

The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.

The problem now, Frank thinks, is that too many self-styled liberals and progressives can't imagine talking or writing this way. They try to overcomplicate things and always have their eyes out for a technocratic, conflict-free solution. That's why Frank feels that working people themselves must take the lead in protesting inequality. "If the destruction of the middle class is ever to be addressed and solved, the impetus must come from below, not from above," he writes. He's already given us an idea of what he thinks the protest should look and sound like. Are Americans capable of that kind of discourse? How many actually believe in some kind of labor theory of value after generations of pro-capitalist indoctrination portraying the entrepreneur and the investor as the founts from whom all fortunes flow and the rightful reapers of the most rewards?  After generations dedicated to damning the idea of entitlement, how many of us really feel that inequality is unfair? How many would stand their rhetorical ground after being chided for their "envy" and their ignorance of economics? Or will this be a debate at all? When the poor rise up, will it be because they've refuted capitalist apologetics, or because they've finally refused to listen to them? Put that way, you might understand why professional liberals feel uncomfortable with any passionate feeling on the question. Life for them, it often seems, is one great debate. But that may also be why Frank says they can't lead anymore. Life, he may believe, isn't subject to debate.

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