A common refrain in the Democratic Party debates has been support for more equality, the inclusion of those yet to access the American Dream. Most candidates even want to include migrants in their target group and make them eligible for free college and medical care. Expanding the base of successful citizens is what has defined this country, a liberal idea that’s unfortunately remained mostly an idea over the past few generations, especially for the Democratic Party which has left the lower classes behind in its embrace of the market to referee selections, a defaulted endorsement of Milton Friedman: Equality results from individuals and groups freely accessing the market to their advantage. To slightly alter his famous construction, if we demand equality before freedom, market freedom, we get neither; if we demand this freedom before equality, we get both.
Rahm Emanuel spoke for the candidates recently on “This Week,” saying in response to the proverbial claim from Chris Christie that they have no answer for the great Trump economy, that they will produce an economy for everybody. What form of freedom will produce this ideal? The notion of equality is one of the central enigmas in our cultural heritage, a compromise-abstraction penned in the founding documents, the Preamble to the Declaration in particular. And it’s sealed with divine authority. We’re blessed, “endowed” by our “Creator,” spiritually enhanced from exposure to a force that grants us exceptional status. Such an enlightening spiel could hardly be tainted with prejudice, though few believe we’re literally created equal or guaranteed equal status in the future.
But these inspirational words pump many to scramble for the spoils and grab a piece of equality. They spur the chance to move ahead and secure equal status with someone above them, and move even further up the occupational chain, replacing others cast aside in the competition. Since the system’s slots are only relatively expandable, the movers will mostly change places with other strivers on the way up, but the incentive to be more equal keeps the strivers in motion. Inviting more and more to compete in the competitive marketplace and win a lottery is a lofty and functional ruse, but lotteries guarantee that many will be left holding unredeemable stubs, fated to occupy slots frozen in the chain. Inequality is built into the hustle which essentially becomes a license for repressing the differences and histories of all seekers, and a diversion from exposing the myth that we all sprint from the starting gate with an equal chance to succeed.
Will offering batches of lottery tickets to all strivers and dreamers only create more victims if the institutions are lacking to process them equitably? If wages remain stagnant, and access to permanent jobs with benefits and an affordable college education are limited, to mention a few striking symptoms, these proposals will remain embarrassingly utopian.
An improvement in our democracy is a precondition for such changes, the greater representation of more aspiring souls in the direction of some form of equal influence if not Direct Democracy, a quite utopian notion as well that will mandate nearly universal literacy. This will be virtually impossible to legislate in large-scale systems. In fact, the very impulse of the democratic idea threatens to destroy society. In pushing more and more citizens to get involved and advance beyond their current stations, many will become alienated from having to accept lesser positions of power and influence. Specialization of function is this capitalism’s language, requiring that positions and decisions be efficiently ranked.
Which raises the question of whether completely socialized democracies, the requisite for approximating an egalitarian society, can exist (Arthur Galston, “Yes, Contemporary Capitalism Can Be Compatible With Liberal Democracy,” The Guardian, 8/21/19). None currently do, and the only course imaginable at this time to produce one would be through the creation of cooperative structures that can work in relatively small, cohesive and homogenous groupings. Otherwise the increased participation will tend to reach a point where the many voices will become so demanding that chaos ensues, the impossibility of equitable governance finally inviting an authoritarian response.
It’s telling that since the emergence of mass society in the early 20th century there have been few novels that project a viable utopia. Those that play with the possibility of utopia but finally script their failure and inevitable dystopian replacement have been the norm. H. G. Wells’ Modern Utopia (1905) was one of the last before the dystopian classics were penned after WWI: Zamyatin’s We (1921); Huxley’s Brave New World (1932); Orwell’s 1984 (1948); Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974); Burgess’s 1985 (1978), to mention a few.
Liberal democracies did adjust after WWII, proving the fablers wrong at least in terms of the timeline. Central to this adjustment was the social contract that expanded opportunity for those at the bottom of the hierarchy. An expanding middle class was key since it provided the target-stimulus for the excluded to strive for membership. The era of middle class shrinkage coincident with our current neoliberal order, what Jennifer Matsui calls a stealthy, nameless apparatus of denial, has blocked this expansion (“Neoliberalism: The Ideology That Dares Not Speak Its Name,” CounterPunch, 9/27/19). With little room to move up, the lower and working classes have suffered severely, and this has led to the voiding of this historic contract, along with a rash of irrational consequences that threaten to destroy the legal bases for democracy, leaving capitalism’s excesses unchecked.
What’s evolved is a contract defaulted to the mass by private interests unaccountable to the larger society, an imposed script in the name of populism only. Citizens become more and more disenfranchised as they hopelessly succumb to suspect authority figures (A People’s Manifesto, 2017). Lacking the ability to participate in elections—especially with the wave of gerrymandering and the influence of dark money—they stop voting their interests and consume the symbols that cut through the clutter to the simple “solutions” that defy civil dialogue. Government becomes the obvious target in a world of proliferating enemies.
The decline of factual journalism, and especially investigative reporting, leave a space to be filled by the social media advocacy of violence, hatred, and demagoguery that reinforces these trends. With the cultural cement for a credible social contract lacking, and mobility into and through the middle regions of the social structure evaporating, the orchestrators can refuse to cooperate across partisan divides and keep grabbing more power. The extremes of wealth and poverty compound with little to brake or reverse the process.
The Democrats’ laudable call for more equality comes in the face of this middle class evaporation and epidemic of inequality, brought to us by forces in play over the course of the past forty years or so which have prevented the absorption of the excluded into an equitable contract.
It’s a familiar story. The emergence of globalization as a response to the stagnation of the domestic US economy in the mid-seventies created significant blockages. Freed from national restraints, corporations sought pockets of cheap labor overseas to boost their bottom lines after years of contraction. This value was not returned to the stakeholders, however, and especially not to employees (breaking unions was another significant plank in these offshore moves), but mostly to stockholders. The pumped-up stock prices seeded the capital-expanding wealth of the elite minority as wages stagnated. And much of their new wealth was used to speculate in finance and real estate, the banks following suit to re-secure their lost profitability from bad loans and other reversals during the downturn. Why make things when the properly placed financial instruments can conjure a greater and quicker return!
It was also used in the buying up of rivals. The mergers-and-acquisitions boom was a boon for Wall Street investors who saw their stocks soar. But the mass layoffs that ensued weakened unions and helped bust contracts, compounding the decline in the manufacturing sectors. The overall shrinkage of the domestic industrial base from these developments and the unpatriotic flight of corporations overseas depleted public budgets from the loss of tax revenue, leaving black holes in the labor economy that expanded inequality. And the new information economy that succeeds the age of labor manufacturing created sharper disparities with the rapid rise of educated workers’ salaries in the face of stagnating wages.
The catch-up game was already mostly lost when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the moment of Obama’s ascendancy. His administration’s feeble efforts to restore the middle class even to its pre-Recession status has taken its toll. Its austerity policies, in sync with budget-balancing state mandates, overwhelmingly benefited entrenched interests. Keynesian counter-cyclical policies that would keep the vulnerable working and paying taxes, refuse to make them carry the major burden of the downturn, measures to stabilize the system more fairly that Obama himself championed in his early speeches, were nixed. This resulted in the migration of capital away from the lower sectors, and especially from minority communities, into the bank accounts of the elite, further increasing inequality.
In flailing for an alternative to Trump most Democratic candidates have managed to avoid mentioning the Obama legacy, and for good reason. His center-right policies helped elect Trump. Sanders or Warren could appreciably reverse these trends with a converted 2020 Congress. Their “big ideas,” lambasted on their right of the debate stage as violating the establishment code of incrementalism, are the best option to restore the conditions for productively and equitably absorbing more aspiring citizens and expanding the middle class.
The seekers of office perennially pander to this category in the middle, what most Americans from below and above it blindly identify with as a way to evade their link to the realities of class. But they avoid pitching their scripts to the lower classes, that relatively same percentage of victims structurally excluded since the country’s inception. If restoring the middle class to prominence is a precondition for expanding opportunities for more of the excluded, some will find slots, but this percentage will not change that much. As it stands, few from this cluster make it and the Sanders/Warren push promises to shrink the lower significantly and boost the middle with a big infusion of resources. This will help to modulate the friction between these sectors, the divisions that keep victims at each other’s throats instead of the system.
Significantly shrinking that bottom strip of deprived that has been impervious to all filter-down schemes is a tall order, even with this kind of support. It’s a throwback to the “Great Society,” Keynesian counter-cyclical strategy of subsidizing specific sectors, direct investments that can sustain the deprived. Precisely placed debt-creation can produce the capital whose fruits will potentially wipe it out. And as the beneficiaries access this power they’ll spend a greater percentage of it on their immediate needs than the wealthy. The feeling of belongingness on the part of the new participants will tend to increase productivity. And the net effect will increase tax revenues over the long term.
This is an idea too “big” only if you ignore the scale of the revolution that pushed the middle class to the bottom over the past generations. And this is affordable if you view the issue honestly, as a collection problem. Sanders’ tax proposal over time would at least get back what the beneficiaries of changed policies have received as the relatively progressive tax structure was dismantled. These subsidies, mostly to those who don’t need them, have bloated budgets. The Trump tax cuts are only the most recent transparent example. There’s George Bush’s cuts in 2003 and 2006, the first coming after underwriting the Afghan War and coinciding with the expense for the Iraq War. Reagan’s military build-up coincided with the biggest ever tax reduction for the upper tiers. Needless to say austerity succeeded these misadventures in deficit building, and that bill should also be collected. With interest rates now at historically low levels, a Sanders-type big plan could float once the books are balanced.
The real Sanders/Warren contribution to the crisis of the middle class then will be to treat its shrinkage and decline as integrally linked to the expanding lower levels. That is, reverse the trajectory that created this crisis through an investment that absorbs those left behind in the march of “progress.” If they were pushed down, then push them back up while expanding the middle to re-bulge the center of the hourglass. This will have to start with aggressively attacking the homeless problem, that symptom of contraction and exclusion that points to a major flaw in our social order. If the “class struggle has become the middle class struggle,” according to Jeffrey St. Clair, then this will serve to at least temper it (“Roaming Charges,” CounterPunch, 10/18/19).
Substantial change won’t come without such aggressive infusions. “Incremental fixes” aren’t even possible without the pressure of the “bully pulpit” to build support for major reforms (Harold Meyerson, “The Fierce Urgency of Less,” The American Prospect, 10/18/19). Conventional public-policy solutions are simply no longer sufficient since the neoliberal counter-revolution is too entrenched. What good will come from educating more workers for the technocracy when there are only so many good-paying slots for them to occupy? What good will it do to invite more to join the nickel-and-dimed economy when the low wage levels make it necessary for so many to supplement them with welfare in order to survive?
A fundamental political restructuring must precede an expansion of the lottery. The institutionalization of experiments in democratic process begun through the efforts of the Occupy movement, for example; the reversal of Citizens United vs. FEC for sure, and beyond to the elimination of superfluous finance from the election process to sync with a radically shortened time frame for the events themselves. And, a few more parties on the ballot would be welcome.
The Democrats can talk and talk about including everyone in their version of a more humane and equal America, but squatting on Wall Street for funds to keep their jobs, and mingling with K Street to underwrite the interests of those who are sabotaging this inclusion, will only sharpen the divides.
John O’Kane teaches writing at Chapman University. His most recent book is Jukebox Confessionals.