FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Constructions of Economic Inequality

by

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. 

Richard Goldin is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at California State University – Long Beach.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sandes Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
Stavros Mavroudeas
Blatant Hypocrisy: the Latest Late-Night Bailout of Greece
Arun Gupta
A War of All Against All
Dan Kovalik
NPR, Yemen & the Downplaying of U.S. War Crimes
Murray Dobbin
Are We Witnessing the Beginning of the End of Globalization?
Daniel Falcone
Urban Injustice: How Ghettos Happen, an Interview with David Hilfiker
Gloria Jimenez
In Honduras, USAID Honduras Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers
Kent Paterson
The Old Braceros Fight On
Randy Blazak
Thugs, Bullies, and Donald J. Trump: The Perils of Wounded Masculinity
Lawrence Reichard
The Seemingly Endless Indignities of Air Travel: Report from the Losing Side of Class Warfare
Peter Berllios
Bernie and Utopia
Stan Cox – Paul Cox
Indonesia’s Unnatural Mud Disaster Turns Ten
Linda Pentz Gunter
Obama in Hiroshima: Time to Say “Sorry” and “Ban the Bomb”
George Souvlis
How the West Came to Rule: an Interview with Alexander Anievas
Stratos Ramoglou
Why the Greek Economic Crisis Won’t be Ending Anytime Soon
David Price
The 2016 Tour of California: Notes on a Big Pharma Bike Race
Dmitry Mickiewicz
Barbarous Deforestation in Western Ukraine
Gilbert Mercier
Donald Trump: Caligula of the Lowest Common Denominator Empire?
Patrick Bond
Imperialism’s Junior Partners
Mark Hand
The Trouble with Fracking Fiction
Priti Gulati Cox
Broken Green: Two Years of Modi
Marc Levy
Sitrep: Hometown Unwelcomes Vietnam Vets
Robert Dodge
On President Obama’s Hiroshima Visit
Andrew Moss
Bridge to Wellbeing?
Ed Kemmick
New Book Full of Amazing Montana Women
Michael Dickinson
Bye Bye Legal High in Backwards Britain
Missy Comley Beattie
Wanted: Daddy or Mommy in Chief
Charles R. Larson
Russian Women, Then and Now
May 26, 2016
Paul Craig Roberts
The Looting Stage of Capitalism: Germany’s Assault on the IMF
Pepe Escobar
Hillary Clinton: A Major Gold-Digging Liability
Sam Pizzigati
America’s Cosmic Tax Gap
Ramzy Baroud
Time to End the ‘Hasbara’: Palestinian Media and the Search for a Common Story
José L. Flores
Wall Street’s New Man in Brazil: The Forces Behind Dilma Rousseff’s Impeachment
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail