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Shaping the World in Their Own Image

The Constructions of Economic Inequality

by RICHARD GOLDIN

Most of us have been well-trained during our lives to be good “social scientists.”   We are taught that we can rummage through the facts of the world like shoppers at a yard sale – holding up each item for inspection, carefully and rationally examining it for potential usages and possible defects.  This social science view underpins what would seem to most people to be, if not the actual, at least the ideal, method for resolving political disputes; one in which there are observable and measurable objects and relations which can (and should) form the bases of political viewpoints and discussion.   Based on this perspective, it is often thought that social or political change can be brought about by illuminating the “facts” to greater numbers of people.

This social science perspective has been challenged in the last decades by the emergence of a different political strategy; one in which “facts” do not function politically as fixed, observable or measurable.   In this constructivist strategy, social science facts are not countered by differing facts.  Instead, the approach is to re-interpret dominant American norms and values in ways that give the desired political meaning to the facts proffered through the social science perspective.   These scientific and constructivist strategies do not engage one another, since to do so would legitimize the other’s approach.  Instead, each struggles to shape the political world in their own image.    The result is our current politics – a seemingly endless cacophony of disjointed political conversations in which the social scientific and the constructivist strategies talk past each other.

The ongoing disagreements over economic inequality are an example of this battle.  The social science perspective attempts to construct inequality as a purely materialistic phenomena, and thus always susceptible to “objective” measurement.  As a political effect, this method produces objects such as Inequality for All, the recent Robert Reich film.   In Reich’s film, the torrent of charts and graphs represent a political strategy in which existing structural relations can be altered by revealing to the audience the measurable facts of inequality.

This social science approach is in tension with a constructivist politics in which “economic inequality” does not mirror measurable material differences or their effects.   Instead, the constructivist perspective determinedly shuns real world specificities.    The primary strategy is not to contest the existence of great economic inequality, but, rather, to intertwine inequality with the norms of individualism and opportunity.  By ignoring any structural determinants or quantitative analyses, and instead focusing on “individuality,” the constructivist approach attempts to portray measurable and observable material inequality as the inevitable outcome of American values.

The workings of these constructivist mechanisms requires us to examine political conflicts through a different optic than the one provided us by our social science training.   It necessitates a re-thinking of the complex constructions of American norms and values and the impact of these constructive processes on our own political engagements.

Consider the American worship of individualism.  This ethos is often invoked to interpret economic hierarchies as primarily, if not solely, the effect of individual differences in rationality and determination.  Though clearly quite useful for capitalism, this American focus on the individual is not the direct effect of a single generating force or economic structure.   Rather the devotion to individualism is an effect of the complex residue of our history, shaped and re-shaped by constructivist political strategies.

It has been argued that American individualism emerges within the social, political and even geographical specificities of early America.   The political scientist Louis Hartz claimed that contemporary American values are not an effect of individualized rationality, but a remainder of our historical past.  In The Liberal Tradition in America he wrote that the American attachment to individualism is an outgrowth of our lack of a feudal tradition (and, hence, the lack of a socialist reaction).   We are the heirs of our past – blinded to any alternative to the atomistic individual.

In The Frontier in American History, written in the 1890s, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote of the influence of the frontier on the building of the American character.  According to Turner, as the frontier had moved continually westward, it provided an environment in which democracy and individualism could flourish and it shaped the American character.

As seen in our current politics, this ethos of individualism did not diminish with the frontier’s disappearance.  We still yearn for the frontier, or at least our idea of what it represents.  This transformation from the material to the ideal has allowed both the frontier and individualism to function in highly malleable ways.   The numerous staged events of Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush chopping wood and clearing brush were part of an overall constructivist strategy to intertwine the historical frontier with economic individualism.  The approach was to construct these men as proto-frontiersman; individuals single-handedly clearing away the untamed wild to stake their homestead.    In so doing, the physical frontier of early America was transformed into the contemporary promise of an economic world of unbounded potentiality, waiting to be conquered by the strong individual with the requisite will.

By utilizing the specific imagery of chopping wood and clearing brush, economic individualism was fused with the aura of rugged masculinity.   “Real” men were constructed as solitary and self-interested.  The constructivist strategy infused this masculinization into politics by contrasting their rugged, masculinized “frontiersmen” with effeminized political counterparts.   Americans witnessed numerous images of Reagan strongly hoisting his axe, while his predecessor Jimmy Carter had been better known for being attacked by a swamp rabbit; an attack which was framed by the media as an example of both presidential and personal weakness.  The more recent images of Bush  – who redefined himself as a Texan and, hence, someone not to be “messed with” – wielding a chain saw were in direct contrast to John Kerry wind-surfing; an act which was portrayed as effete and effeminate.

The overall constructivist strategy has been to overlay a masculine/feminine dichotomy onto the political.   Views based on extolling the self-serving, competing individual are infused with a masculinity always viewed as positive, while claims of equality and fairness are marginalized and devalued as feminine.   The aim is to suture together a patchwork of social, economic and political policies which benefit only a few and then proffer this collection to the many based not on material relations but a constructed framework of values, norms and gender relations.    It is this framework which underlies Brit Hume’s and Bill O’Reilly’s fulminations on Fox News concerning the supposed feminization of America.   The devaluation of women by those engaged in constructivist politics is not solely an effect of irrationality or prejudice.  Rather, it is a component of an overall strategy to utilize constructed gender relations as the template for validating economic inequality.   The devaluation of women and the construction of economic inequality are thus mutually reinforcing.

While growing economic inequality does not, in itself, lead to the overthrow of capitalism, it does put a strain on the constructivist mechanisms.  The facts of inequality – the observable effects on so many lives – requires the interpretive machinery to feverishly define and incorporate a growing, and potentially destabilizing, reality.  This effort is compounded by the basic strategic requirements of constructing a dominant interpretation – an ease and invisibility which transforms specific perspectives into supposedly universal values.   When social and political constructions are seen for what they are – when the strategic mechanisms are exposed – they can often appear clumsy and ineffective.  The attempt by Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin to reshape the government shutdown  – and subsequent closing of national parks – into an evocation of Obama’s lack of concern for World War II vets (and, hence, traditional American values) failed, partly because of its transparency.   If the machinery is constantly and consistently illuminated, the entire enterprise can become unstable.

Our current politics is in many ways shaped by the tensions between the social science and constructivist approaches.  Social science attempts to limit the ability of constructivism to interpret and give meaning to what social science views as the objective materialistic bases of inequality.   Constructivism, for its part, desires to shape reality by rendering social science, and the illumination of facts, as obsolete political strategies.   In their battle, the social science and constructivist approaches forge our notion of the “real” and problematize the ways in which we all attempt to gain knowledge of the social and political forces that surround us.

Richard Goldin  received a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Los Angeles. He currently teaches Political Theory at California State University, Long Beach.