If we remove the blinders and the filters that prevent us from seeing the whole story, if we understand the ethical arguments that change is imperative, how then do we act?
Do we put the blinders back on, retreat into ourselves, our favored communities, our comfortable realities? Or can we act courageously, change ourselves, and change the world?
We have four possible choices, when presented with a request for empathy: individualism, factionalism, distortion, and love.
Individualism says that empathy doesn’t apply because we are all in a fight for survival and are justified in doing what it takes to get ahead. It is the theory of natural selection applied to humanity. A world of individualism is is a lonely world, where we must be on guard at all times, because other people will crush us at every possible opportunity. And it is not really a prevalent worldview, outside of a few true sociopaths. Most of us care about our parents and our children. And if we extend our empathy that far, how can we justify not caring about our grandparents, our children’s friends, our wider community?
Factionalism says that there are Important Distinctions between humans, and that those Important Distinctions determine which humans are worthy of empathy and respect, and which humans are not really fully human after all. These are the axes of oppression discussed in Part 7.
The trouble with factionalism – aside from its moral indefensibility – is that if we are willing cause harm to other groups, we must be constantly on guard against those groups causing harm to us. As with individualism, we are never safe.
Does it feel to anyone else that the United States is being governed by a high school bully? Has it occurred to anyone else that this might be a direct result of those segregated high-school cafeteria rooms, where college-bound kids looked down their noses at working-class kids – the ones flipping burgers, fixing cars, driving tractors? That Donald Trump might be giving voice to an anger that has been repressed for years? We don’t care what your so-called experts say, they are saying. We won’t stand for your so-called social justice that defines our oppression out of existence. We don’t give a rat’s ass about you or your feelings, because you never gave a rat’s ass about us or ours.
If we embrace factionalism, then we must also embrace the possibility of defeat. As long as we are dehumanizing others, we can expect them to dehumanize us, to fight against us. And that kind of conflict is always destructive to humanity. Great buildings and works of art destroyed in battle. Lives lost, in war, or because we cannot agree on how to respond to a new virus spreading among us, or because we cannot work together in response to climate change or any of the other crises facing humankind and planet Earth. Great ideas and initiatives flushed down the tubes of history because they happened to belong to the losing side.
Do you know any of those positive-thinking people for whom life is sunshine and rainbows and ecstatic dance festivals, and any negativity is brushed away? Who respond to real personal stories of harm experienced with answers like your harmful thoughts are manifesting as physical suffering? Change your thoughts, change your life, they suggest. We each create our own experience.
That is one form of distortion, of embracing a version of reality that obfuscates the ethical dimensions of our interconnectedness. We do, in a sense, each create our own experience, but we do so relationally. That is to say that my ability find joy, respect, security, and abundance in life is dependent upon my position along all of the axes of oppression, and that within the context of an inequitable system my own actions and choices are likely to be constraining the ability of others to create their own experiences. A failure to acknowledge this is a denial of reality, and is deeply unethical.
Another form of distortion that I have seen is enabled by spiritual belief systems that devalue our physical existence. This world is just a dream, some say. Our mission is to transcend physical reality. Or Jesus is coming soon to take the true believers up to Heaven. I can’t theologically disprove any such statements, but I can confidently state that it is ethically problematic to devalue our current lived experience, if doing so also devalues harm and suffering, and the ways in which our own choices in this shared “dreamworld” are resulting in nightmares for some and happy dreams for others.
Love is a commitment to acknowledge the humanity in all people. It says, I may not agree with you, but I respect you. It may even say, I cannot forgive you for the harm you have caused me, but I understand that you were acting out your own pain, your own lack of love. It is not warm and fuzzy, it is not absolution, it may not always seem kind. But it is real.
Love is the opposite of “cancel culture” – a phrase making the media rounds these days. Cancel culture is vigilant, watchful, waiting for anyone to make an irredeemable mistake, which will instantly transform them from a Good Person to a Bad Person. Cancel culture serves neoliberalism. We have all made such mistakes; we could all be “cancelled.” So we are careful not to step out of line; we allow our fear to keep us contained, keep us manageable.
Love does not search for a reason to dehumanize people: color of skin, country of origin, even evidence of past or ongoing harms committed. Love listens, in order to understand. Love does not accept prejudice, but neither does it condemn people for their words or opinions. It persistently tugs at the heartstrings to understand prejudice, unwind it, deconstruct it. So you say you don’t like the Somali people in town, tell me why? (Not, goodbye you fucking racist.) I miss the way things used to be too, but change happens, we all have to adapt. Have you tried their new restaurant downtown? I’ll take you there, the food is delicious, and the owner is a friend of mine… Such is the way of love.
This began as a series about economics, about building an economy of, for, and by the people, and we ended up talking about love. There’s a good reason for that. I don’t believe that we will be able to build such an economy until we can choose to love and respect one another, to fully accept those aspirational words written 244 years ago: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all (humans) are created equal, that they are endowed…with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
I borrowed the title of this essay from a book that I highly recommend to anyone who has been involved with social justice but is feeling disillusioned by the lack of real, transformative change: I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. I will leave you with her words:
We must love ourselves. We must encourage love – love that is radical, love that digs deep. Love that asks the hard questions, that is ready to listen to the whole story and keep loving anyway. Love for the survivors, love for the perpetrators, love for the survivors who have perpetrated and the perpetrators who have survived. Love for the community that has failed us all. … We can choose to consume each other, or we can choose love. Even in the midst of despair, there is always a choice. I hope we choose love.
Kai Cheng Thom, I Hope We Choose Love, 2019, p. 91.
In Part 6, I highlighted voices from the Black and transgender communities which are critical of mainstream social justice. These voices point out that social justice activism is rich in demands for emotional work, attitude adjustments, minor policy changes, and opportunities for a select few representatives from marginalized groups to join the comfortable classes; and yet notably deficient in demands for the sorts of structural economic reforms that would be necessary to meaningfully improve the lives of a majority of Black or transgender people. It’s nice if the cops won’t kill you, in other words, but that provides slim solace if it remains impossible to earn a living wage, afford food and housing, and escape a life of petty crime in the name of survival. Because mainstream social justice represents no threat to the neoliberal agenda, these voices argue, it actually helps to perpetuate neoliberalism.
In this essay I return to my own voice. Before I begin, I would encourage everyone to read On Gaslighting, by Nora Samaran. For anyone unfamiliar with the term “gaslighting” or with the idea of unintentional-but-still-harmful gaslighting, I quote her opening paragraphs:
I keep having the same conversation over and over.
That thing where someone undermines your perception of reality, and says you’re crazy, or denies that something is happening that is in fact happening?
When people we love and trust do that to us? It really messes with our minds.
Over time, or when it is about important things, this experience of having words deny reality can fundamentally shatter our sense of self-trust and our ability to navigate reality.
“There’s a word for that,” I say, hearing yet another such story from a female friend. “It’s gaslighting.”
Friend says “What’s gaslighting? I’ve never heard of that.”
“It’s when someone undermines your trust in your own perceptions and you feel crazy because your instincts and intuition and sometimes even plain old perceptions are telling you one thing, and words from someone you trust are telling you something different.”
“Oh.” (looks it up).
“Oh,” friend says again, reading. “But gaslighting seems to mean when someone does that to you intentionally. I don’t think he was doing it to me intentionally. Actually, it’s even harder to pin down because I don’t even think he was fully aware he was doing it and he got upset when I talked about it. But he was. And it makes me question my sanity.”
Do you understand the depth of the harm of making someone question their sanity? This is serious shit. This is not like “whoops I brought you the strawberry ice cream and forgot you like banana better.” It is poking a hole in someone’s fundamental capacity to engage with reality. Understand it in a context in which women have been being told every day for their entire lives that their perceptions cannot be trusted – when in fact our perceptions are often bang fucking on – and you have a systemic, pervasive, deeply psychologically harmful phenomenon, insanity by a thousand cuts.
I believe that neoliberalism is using a social justice narrative to gaslight the entire United States, and much of the world.
The nature of this gaslighting is as follows. Social justice paints a national narrative of progress toward greater equality, beginning with the original sins of slavery and colonization and proceeding through abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay marriage, transgender equality, and the ongoing (and likely to be successful) Black Lives Matter protests against militarized and racist police practices. This is in direct conflict with the lived experiences of a majority of Americans, who – as I discussed in Parts 1 and 2 of this series – have found themselves squeezed between stagnant wages, skyrocketing costs of living, and a profound absence of respect or empathy from those in positions of power, and have logically concluded that equality is decreasing.
To counter such claims, neoliberal social justice offers one of three answers:
Your experience is not real (because statistics show that America is more equal than it was in the past).
If you are white and male, your perceived suffering is actually just an overdue pruning of your unearned white male privilege, so deal with it.
If you are anything other than white and male, your suffering is due to the white supremacist patriarchy, and the solution is to continue the work of social justice.
Most people on the losing end of neoliberal economics don’t find these answers very satisfying. For one thing, if equality is improving over time while lived experience of quality of life is declining, it’s difficult to argue that remaining inequality is the cause of that decline. For another, most of these people have direct experiences of oppression that, according to the logic of social justice, does not and can not exist.
The result of prolonged gaslighting, as Samaran clearly describes, is a loss of sanity, and I would posit that this national insanity is at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump, a narcissistic and divisive man with little talent for leadership who rose to power by giving voice to the simmering anger of millions of gaslit, downtrodden Americans.
The mechanism of this gaslighting remained a mystery to me until recently. The people involved in social justice work – from authors and activists to my own friends and acquaintances – all seemed to be good people with honest and moral intentions of changing the world for the better, of being better ancestors to their own children and the children of the world. When I delved deeper into the work of rooting out implicit bias and understanding privilege, I could find little that I would disagree with. At the same time, I felt strongly that something was amiss, that the ideology of social justice could not explain many of the inequalities I observed in the world and that it was actually serving to distract attention from them. Finally, I came to a realization: what if the framework of social justice was not wrong, but rather incomplete?
High on the recommended reading list for white people during the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests is Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad. In this book – intended as a guide for journaling and reflection – Saad, a Black woman, describes the many ways in which a culture of white supremacy is oppressive to people of color, and encourages readers to reflect on their own attitudes, biases, and behaviors in this regard.
I had an interesting experience working through it, because I discovered that aside from a fear of encountering Black men on dark urban streets gleaned from too many childhood 10 o’clock news crime reports, I could not identify much in the way of deep-seated racial biases within myself – which I attribute to primarily inhabiting racially homogeneous (mostly white) communities in which race did not serve as a major point of distinction. I did, however, reflect more broadly on her journaling prompts. How have you felt superior to others? she asks in the context of race. How has that feeling led you to act in ways that are harmful to others, or to fail to intervene when you observed others committing harm?
It turns out, upon self-reflection, that I have felt superior to others. I have acted in ways that privileged myself at others’ expense, I have been on the losing end of oppressive attitudes and behaviors, and I have observed similar behaviors in others. And yet somehow very little of the oppression that I have perpetrated, experienced, or observed fits neatly into racism, misogyny, or any of the other categories of social justice. At first I doubted whether it was therefore of any importance whatsoever, but then a little alarm bell went off in my head. Remember gaslighting? That essay I read telling me to trust my own intuitions, reflections, and perceptions even when “experts” that I trust are telling a different story? Might that be going on here?
We are all familiar with the intersecting identities that form the axes of oppression in social justice theory:
Gender (male/female and cis/trans/nonbinary)
and a few others.
If we define oppression in the same way that Saad defines racism – prejudice in the context of a difference in power – then we must ask: why must oppression occur only in the context of identity? Might other axes of oppression exist, and if so is there any ethical reason not to include them within the framework of social justice? Might these “invisible” axes of oppression help to explain how neoliberal social justice is gaslighting America, telling a story that is in conflict with citizens’ lived experience?
Invisible Axes of Oppression
Based upon self-reflection on oppression I have observed or experienced in my own life, I posit that there are at least six important intersecting non-identitarian axes of oppression in American society, all of which are fully deserving of social justice activism.
Origin (native to an area vs. immigrant)
I will discuss each of these in turn, based upon my own experiences and observations. Within each one, I will attempt to identify the nature of the power difference, the parties involved (who is oppressing, who is being oppressed), and the method by which oppression is occurring.
I have very few working class friends. That number might even be zero, but it depends on how exactly the distinction is defined. I have friends who earn minimum wage or slightly above, but I do not consider them working class for reasons I will explain below. This is a problem, I suggest, because it highlights one of the greatest divides in American society – at least on par with race in terms of significance.
For me, this divide dates all the way back to the beginning of high school. In Me and White Supremacy, Saad discusses the way subtle racism leads to black kids sitting together in the cafeteria, away from the white kids. We had only one black kid in our small town school, and from my viewpoint at least he was reasonably well accepted, so that wasn’t the divide that I observed. Instead, from about ninth grade onwards, we had college-bound kids and work-bound kids: those who were studying advanced math and literature in order to get a high SAT score, and those who were taking shop and welding classes and planning to carry on the family business or find work around town after graduation.
The divide itself is not a problem. The problem is that we (and I say this as one of the college-bound kids) did not respect them. We weren’t especially mean to them, but we considered ourselves better, and – in a graduating class of 61 students – I can sadly say I remember the names of all of my college-bound classmates, but few of the rest. We were taught this disrespect by our families – most of whom were themselves college-educated. We were told that we ought to work hard in school, or we might end up flipping burgers – as if flipping burgers were a worthless occupation and not a meaningful contribution to society.
When I discuss oppression based on occupation, I am referring not specifically to rate of pay or type of work, but whether the work – and thereby the person doing the work – is respected by members of the financially comfortable, educated classes in society. From the perspective of the comfortable classes, respectability of work in current American society looks something like this:
From the perspective of the comfortable classes, i.e. the privileged people along this axis of oppression:
Other members of the comfortable classes are people worthy of respect.
People working service jobs that serve the comfortable classes are also people worthy of respect, albeit slightly less. These are considered acceptable jobs for young adults born into the comfortable classes, as they apply for better jobs or make plans to pursue further education. The comfortable classes interact with these folks in a friendly manner, leave generous tips, and occasionally offer suggestions as to how to move up in the world. These jobs act as a relief valve to accommodate the fact that there are more children of comfortable-class people graduating from college than there are available jobs in the comfortable classes, and they save the comfortable classes from actually having to interact with working-class people on a regular basis. Younger people in these jobs – who are seen as using it as a stepping stone – are treated with more respect than elders for whom it is a career.
Members of the skilled working classes are respected for their labor alone, not for their humanity. We might talk about having a good mechanic or a good electrician, but chances are they are not our friends and we do not really value them as people. If we have a few friends and family in these roles, we consider them a bit odd but honor them for “following their own path.”
People working “unskilled” service jobs – in call centers, as big box cashiers, or as fast food workers – are seldom regarded as people at all. We treat them like machines, and if they make a mistake we inform them rudely and expect contrition. Chances are we have no personal relationships whatsoever with people working these jobs, and if we do have a friend or family member in these roles we consider it a tragedy in need of correction.
This occupation-based dehumanization parallels and perpetuates the neoliberal commodification and devaluation of human labor. There was a time – 40+ years ago – when most of the unskilled service jobs did not yet exist (no Amazon warehouses, no nationwide Walmarts) and when the skilled working-class jobs were mostly unionized and commanded respect and a living wage. That this change should be completely ignored by social justice efforts is a reflection of the fact that social justice ideology is a product of colleges and universities, which themselves are occupied by present and aspiring members of the comfortable classes. The fact that the comfortable classes do not regard the working classes as worthy of respect allows us to ignore wage stagnation, benefit cuts, rent increases, and all of the other trends that are making survival increasingly tenuous for this segment of the population.
We do not wear our education credentials on our sleeves; oppression based on education occurs primarily at the level of hiring, and in particular in the vast number of job applications that require a generic college degree. Just as I argued in Part 3 that the only ethical function of an economy is to facilitate exchange of goods and services, I would argue that the only ethical function of higher education is to provide necessary preparation for a career. I would further argue that there is no job or career for which an adequate apprenticeship and passage of any necessary certification exams cannot substitute for a formal education.
Thus I find it ironic that so many job descriptions have a nondiscrimination clause directly adjacent to a requirement for a college degree. The job announcement always spells out exactly the skills and experience required. If an applicant can demonstrate that they meet those requirements, they should be hired. Requiring a degree only ensures that the applicant had enough resources to pay for college or a good enough family credit score to secure college loans.
Having been through four years of college at a well-regarded liberal arts institution, I can attest that it was a positive experience and a good preparation for graduate school, but in no way necessary to perform any of the degree-requiring jobs that I did after graduating. The near-universal requirement of college degrees for well-paying jobs with benefits thus represents a form of discrimination. It is a statement that the employer would prefer to hire someone from the comfortable classes, and that fully capable working-class applicants – for whom college was not financially a viable option – need not apply. Education-based oppression therefore directly serves the interests of class segregation and neoliberalism.
Growing up in a small town, I quickly learned that some families had status. Typically that meant that they had wealth, but it also meant that they had history – members on the city council, farms or family businesses dating back three or four generations. My family was at the bottom of the status pile. My parents were never married and separated (this matters in a Christian community), my father was not raised in the community, and he had no wealth or business to his name. I cemented my lack of status in high school by ratting out a high-status basketball player for cheating on an exam, resulting in his suspension from sports for a few games and bringing shame to his family. I managed to partially overcome my lack of status through intelligence – see below – but my lack of status in my community was central to my decision to leave town after high school.
Status confers access to social capital that brings opportunities for success and career advancement, providing unearned privilege to some children in a manner analogous to inherited wealth. Status is as old as human civilization, nearly impossible to address politically, and not uniquely neoliberal in any way. Even so, it is worthy of mention as an axis of oppression that serves to perpetuate inequality, and a potential target for social justice activism.
I have already used the word “class” in the context of “working class” and “comfortable classes” to describe groups of people. In describing class as an axis of oppression, I am referring to all of the subtle and not-so-subtle indicators that we belong to one or the other of these tribes. These include word choice, patterns of speech, demeanor, clothing choices, and even our given names. It has been proven that job applicants with traditionally Black names are interviewed at a lower rate by white hiring boards. Though I’m not aware of any parallel study, I would wager that the same would be true if we compared traditionally working-class names (e.g. Tanner, Dakota) with traditionally upper-class names (e.g. Joseph, Christopher).
Classism makes it difficult for working-class people to succeed in comfortable-class spaces like colleges because they perceive – usually quite correctly – that they are being judged negatively. It adds one more barrier to upward mobility; even if a person is able to “escape” the working classes by possessing high intelligence (see below), attending college, and landing a comfortable-class job, it can remain difficult to fit in and feel comfortable.
Class discrimination is insidious, continuous, unconscious, and structural. In confronting it we will need to use all of the tools developed to confront racism: understanding implicit bias, identifying microaggressions, avoiding tokenism, saviorism, etc. Given that people of color make up a significant proportion of the working classes, there is a substantial overlap between racism and classism in the United States, and I would even go so far as to hypothesize that – in regions where the comfortable classes are predominantly white and the lower classes are predominantly people of color – some of what appears as racism may actually be classism in disguise. That is to say that if we were able to determine what was going on in the minds of people when discriminating based on race, it might be less “person of color = not worthy of respect” and more “person of color = working class = not worthy of respect.” That doesn’t make it any less impactful to those affected, of course, but it may alter the nature of the activism required to effect change.
Modern society privileges a certain variety of mathematical, analytical intelligence of the sort that can ace the SAT exam. This is far from the only variety of human intelligence; some people have linguistic, musical, artistic, literary, emotional, or social genius, to name a few, and all are valuable to a flourishing human community. But mathematical/analytical intelligence is useful for the sorts of jobs that oversee a global, technological economy, and so it has been granted special status among the comfortable classes.
This happens to be the way that my brain works, and it was my ticket to success all through my years of education. It also constitutes unearned privilege. I did not construct my brain. Too often I watched others work twice as hard to receive lower grades and thought “I am a winner!” School became a competition, with top marks as validation that I was worthy of respect.
I don’t want to get too far off into the weeds here, but I will say that when I reflect on the ways in which my privilege has caused harm to others, this is an axis of oppression that comes to mind. I seem to have developed some bad habits, in terms of using my intelligence to gain respect rather than to teach and empower others. I have noticed that those who are closest to me seem to become less confident in their own analytical intelligence over time. I feel I am at least partly responsible. My tendency is to identify problems before others recognize them, devise and implement a solution, and then tell others what I did. This is helpful and can quickly render me valuable and even indispensable, but it ultimately plants seeds of self-doubt in those around me. I also feel that my suggestions and criticisms are given undue weight in everyday life by virtue of my intelligence; that I am assumed to be right even when there is no obvious reason that I should be. I wonder if there might be a way – if I were to operate from a greater sense of security within myself – that I might be able to use my intelligence in a way that is empowering rather than disempowering to others.
Returning to a discussion of intelligence as an axis of oppression in general, an emphasis on knowledge and intelligence creates the illusion of a meritocratic society – anyone who passes the test can succeed – while tacitly acknowledging that this sort of learning is readily fostered among the comfortable classes but not lower on the economic ladder. So in reality, these knowledge- and intelligence-based hurdles and incentives impose another mechanism to perpetuate the class divide, while also devaluing those whose natural intelligences are not in the mathematical or analytical arenas.
Origin – which I will define as whether a person is native or new to a community – is distinct from the previous five axes of oppression. It is unique in that oppression can flow either way, depending on which group has more power. I want to discuss it here, however, because it is also excluded from the framework of mainstream social justice, with origin-based oppressions typically simplified as identity-based oppressions.
We live in a world of human migrations, which are likely to increase in the decades ahead as climate change renders some regions less habitable. People move fleeing oppression and violence, seeking opportunity, or for a hundred other reasons. When enough new people enter a community that social dynamics or economic realities begin to change, a predictable and understandable resentment arises in the native people of that community, the ones that were born and raised there.
We give this dynamic different names, depending on which group has more power. When the new (usually white) people have more power and the existing people (usually of color) are devalued or displaced, we call the process gentrification and the resistance community preservation. When the new people are refugees or economic migrants (usually people of color) and the existing people are white (and usually lower-class, but with more power), we call the process immigration and the resistance racism. When there is no clear power differential, the resentment and divide usually goes unnamed. I moved to my current area twelve years ago, a place where in-migration (of mostly comfortable-class white people, into a mostly-white community) has resulted in significant population growth and increases in housing costs. Even now, I find that very few of my friends were born and raised here, and that there is a real resentment-based barrier to friendship between natives and newcomers.
This is another area in which neoliberal social justice is guilty of oversimplifying oppression to fit into an identity framework. In the past 20 years, the rural area where I grew up has seen a significant influx of Latinx immigrants and Somali refugees. This is a region that has been declining economically for decades, thanks to industrialization of agriculture shrinking the number of jobs overall while simultaneously creating a large number of employment opportunities in the lowest-respectability, lowest-pay range (meat processing, industrial-scale animal production and beet sugar production). The immigrants and refugees have taken these jobs and have begun to revitalize the town centers, opening Mexican and Somali restaurants, clothing stores, and gathering places.
Understandably, many of the residents of my hometown are not happy about these demographic changes. When they express their feelings, mainstream social justice tends to label them as racists. And it’s true that if we define racism as any bias by white people against people of color, then it fits the definition. That said, to really understand whether these people are racially biased or just expressing nativist resentment, we need to ask ourselves if they would feel differently if the newcomers were French (with a language barrier), or even white New Yorkers. Knowing my old friends and neighbors, I suspect they would find such an influx equally troubling.
I’m not suggesting that racist attitudes don’t exist in my hometown, or that oppressions experienced by immigrant communities should be more bearable if they have nativist rather than racist origins. I am simply making a plea for empathy, clarity, and open communication. If someone is grieving change in their community due to immigration, it is not helpful to label them as racist. It is important to understand that human migration will nearly always lead to resentment of newcomers by those native to the area, and that this can be its own axis of oppression independent of the identities of those involved. We will need to work through this conflict many times as migration increases in the years ahead.
Joseph, Jack, Jill, and Jezebel: Examining the effects of social justice and neoliberal economics along axes of oppression
This can all seem incredibly complex; if we examine occupation, education, status, class, intelligence, and origin in addition to the identities of traditional social justice, we all have our place in a 13-dimensional landscape of privilege and oppression.
For the purposes of understanding exactly how an incomplete framework of social justice is gaslighting America, let’s condense some of these axes and consider four hypothetical people.
Joseph is a straight cisgender white male investment banker, born into a wealthy well-known family and still living in his hometown. He is widely regarded as brilliant and holds a Ph.D. in economic theory from an Ivy League school.
Jack is a straight cisgender white male grocery worker who earns minimum wage restocking shelves on the night shift. He was born into a downwardly-mobile working-class family, where paying rent and putting food on the table left no money for college and a bad taste for debt. He left town to find work in the city, where he is currently living out of his car and hopes to someday be able to afford an apartment with roommates or maybe even a spot in a trailer park.
Jill is a queer transgender woman of color who is a tenured professor at a small liberal-arts college near her home city. Her grandparents immigrated to America and worked their way up to the comfortable classes (that was still possible in their generation), and her family is proud that she has been able to overcome the odds, even if they feel conflicted about her unconventional identities. She was awarded a prestigious scholarship to earn her Ph.D., is the author of several well-read books, and is often interviewed as a success story in the movement for social justice.
Jezebel is a queer transgender woman of color who is currently living with five roommates in a run-down apartment in a big city. She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, with no money for college and no time to devote to school. Her parents supported her identity but lamented that it would make her already-bleak prospects even bleaker. She left home at 18 seeking an accepting community, and while she has found good people she has not be able to find a stable job that pays anything approaching a living wage given the astronomical cost of housing. She has been homeless several times, has occasionally resorted to sex work to make ends meet, and has contemplated suicide in particularly hopeless moments.
Let’s assume that all of these people are 30-40 years old, and let’s look at how the world has changed since their birth.
Joseph’s life has always been good. He knew from boyhood that he was destined for success, and he just had to play his aces right – with his family’s sound advice – to maintain his position at the top of all of society’s axes of oppression. In the last decades he has noticed that more of his colleagues are women and people of color, which makes for more interesting boardroom discussions but is no threat to his place in the world, which he feels that he has rightfully earned through hard work and family success. He plans to retire young, maybe buy a yacht, and spend more time exploring all of the places he has visited on business trips.
Jack’s life has been a story of diminishing expectations. When he was born, his father earned respect and good wages working at a factory, his family had a mortgage on a modest home, and they hoped to save enough to send their kids to college – or for their kids to build a good life working in the factory. But the factory closed when Jack was about 10. Factories were closing across town and all over the state, as companies moved manufacturing overseas in pursuit of cheaper labor. They lost the house and moved to a small apartment, and Jack’s dad took up drinking. Eventually his mom found work at the local gas station and his dad earned some money as a freelance mechanic, and the family survived, but the dreams of a college fund were gone, and the feeling of being respected for a good day’s labor was gone along with it.
Jack watched with some envy as his classmates, the children of the town’s teachers and lawyers and dentists, took their SATs and submitted their college applications, but at the same time he noticed how little they respected him. Why should he try to play their game when he had already been branded a loser? So he stuck it out, graduated high school, drank beer with his buddies on the weekends, bought an old beater car that he could sleep in if necessary, and took off in search of work. And there he has been stuck for the last ten years, living out of his car, traveling city to city, occasionally renting an apartment, living paycheck to paycheck. Whenever he has gotten close to saving enough to afford a down payment or to go back to school, some major expense – a new engine in his car, a root canal, an emergency surgery – has wiped it away. He dreams small now, hopes to maybe meet someone, find a spot in a trailer park, raise a child or two, probably never retire. He reads about how social justice is supposedly creating a more equal, more prosperous America, but it seems like so much smoke and mirrors, and it has never done a lick of good for him or his family.
Jill’s life has been one of expanding possibility, but not without struggle. Her immigrant grandparents lived the American Dream during that era when hard physical labor paid real financial dividends, and her parents worked respectable jobs in accounting and hotel administration that kept the family afloat and paid for their kids’ college tuition. She struggled with her queer and trans identities as a child – they were seen as shameful in her community – and was ostracized and bullied by her classmates. She avoided some parts of town where white people shouted rude things and occasionally more ominous threats. In college, though, she discovered people like herself and a whole movement to empower people of color and normalize queer and trans identities, and she finally felt welcome.
Jill really found her voice as an advocate for queer and trans communities, and felt like a trailblazer. She rejoiced when queer people were allowed to marry, held a lively celebration with her longtime partner, and they bought a house together and adopted two children. She felt lucky to find a tenure-track professorship shortly after earning her Ph.D., and her ability to translate science to a popular audience made her a minor celebrity in academic circles. While she knows there remains work to be done – she still faces insults and threats in some parts of town – she looks forward to sending her kids off to college and to a long retirement filled with volunteering and world travels.
Jezebel’s life has always been hard, staying alive, day-by-day. She grew up in one of those ghettos that the freeways cut in half, that the white people liked to pretend didn’t exist. She was the oldest of five. Her parents worked the sorts of service jobs where you talked to people all day long and they talked at you, talked through you, yelled at you, blamed you for things that weren’t your fault, demanded you fix their silly little problems. No one paid them any respect whatsoever, so they weren’t above stealing a few items from time to time. Her dad went to prison when she was 16 for shoplifting; he wanted to buy her a dress for her birthday but couldn’t afford it. The cops found a little weed in his car, threw the book at him. A white man probably would have gotten off with a warning. Whatever. No one ever cared about them.
She dropped out of high school then to care for her younger siblings. She felt safer at home anyway, and food stamps and a welfare check complemented her mom’s meager income and kept them fed and housed – just barely. She left home when she could, bought a one-way bus ticket to the nearest big city. There she found other survivors, castaways, beautiful broken unloved young people of all races and identities, but quite a few like herself. They were her family. They survived together, loved together, hurt each other, acted out their repressed pain and trauma together, blissed out on drugs together. Sometimes they broke the law, sometimes they found a place to live, sometimes they lived on the street. Sometimes her friends didn’t survive. Suicide, overdose, homicide. She grieved them all, but no one seemed to care.
Jezebel heard about “social justice” on the news, about trans “liberation,” about gender confirmation surgery, bathroom equality. As if she could afford surgery. As if that were even in her top ten priorities. A home would be nice. A job that paid enough to afford it. People who looked her in the eye and said “thank you” instead of looking through her as though she didn’t exist and telling her she wasn’t working fast enough, smiling enough, telling every customer about the new credit card the company had to offer. Maybe, she hoped, social justice would get around to caring about people like her. But hope was a dangerous thing to feel, it always led to disappointment. Better to just survive one more day.
How Neoliberal Social Justice is Gaslighting America
This, then, is reality as I see it. It is viewed through my lens, of course, but I encourage each of you to re-examine reality for yourselves, to remove the filters that the media and politics may have given you.
Social justice ideology is gaslighting America not by being wrong, but by being incomplete, by ignoring some of the most significant oppressions occurring all around us, every day.
The Josephs of the world, the ones with the most privilege, are not threatened by social justice activism, even as white privilege and male privilege are deconstructed. Their power lies in their status, in their occupation, in their class, and social justice as currently envisioned is no threat to that power.
The Jills of the world, the ones at the top of the invisible (nonidentitarian) privilege ladder and the bottom of the identity-based privilege ladder, have seen real improvement in quality of life due to the work of social justice, and they have also been privileged by neoliberal economics.
The Jacks of the world, the ones at the bottom of the invisible privilege ladder and at the top of the identity-based privilege ladder, have seen a marked decline in quality of life due to neoliberal devaluation of the working class. Social justice activism has done nothing for them, deeming them to be fully privileged.
The Jezebels of the world, the ones with the least privilege along all axes of oppression, have not really been helped by social justice. In effect, the decreasing oppression along identity-based axes and increasing oppression along non-identitarian axes cancel each other out, with the result that the Jezebels of the world remain in a precarious state of societal disrespect and daily survival.
A Plea for the Expansion of Social Justice
It is high time that we expand our conception of social justice to include all axes of oppression.
If you don’t care about Jack, do it for Jezebel, the one who you claim to care about but who you have not helped, because you have not dared to challenge neoliberalism and the unearned privilege that it provides to you.
If we do not expand our conception of social justice, it is likely to be defeated, and a great deal of good work will be lost. I mean this quite seriously. The Jacks of America are Trump’s base, and they are chomping at the bit to spite “social justice warriors”, who they (quite rightly, it would seem) see as blaming the Jacks of the world for identity-based oppressions while remaining blind to the neoliberal destruction of the working class. They are not a majority, but a less divisive populist voice than Trump could unite the Jacks and the Jezebels against neoliberalism, and if social justice remains tethered to neoliberal ideology then out it will go, the baby out with the bathwater.
Furthermore, it is ethically inconsistent, i.e. hypocritical, to privilege some forms of oppression over others. I cannot think of any argument to support it that does not boil down to “but I like my privilege, and those people don’t deserve it.”
There should be no those people. We are all people. We all deserve love, respect, support, basic human rights, a living wage. Is that too much to ask?
We need to focus on respect in place in addition to providing
opportunities for advancement. Equity in this context is not just about
providing scholarships and grants so that children of truck drivers and
farm workers can go to college and join the comfortable classes. That
only results in a few “success stories” in the media while some new
oppressed group of “not-really-people” – refugees, undocumented
immigrants, downwardly mobile manufacturing workers – takes those jobs
because they have no better options. We need truck drivers, farm workers, and cashiers every bit as much if not more than we need lawyers, professors, and administrators. So we need to respect
the people who perform that labor, pay a living wage, offer benefits,
pay enough to compensate for the dangers of the job. People should be
able to choose their path in life, not be forced to compete in a rigged
casino and ultimately take what they can get. This means that some of
the jobs with the toughest conditions or the highest likelihood of
injury might need to pay several times their current wages.
The modern institution of higher education has created a gated community around the “good” jobs – the ones that generally pay well, provide health and retirement benefits, require less physical risk and discomfort, and confer societal respect. College is the gate, and the guards are the admissions committees, the administrators that set tuition rates, the student loan officers, the standardized tests that together decide which humans are worthy and which humans are not. It is high time that we break down this barrier. If we can accomplish that through free college for all or a relaxation of degree requirements – or both – it will be a victory for equality.
So…do the work to stomp out racism and misogyny within yourself, but also:
Stand up for a living wage for all work.
Stand up for universal health care as a human right.
Stand up for affordable housing. And not just a restriction on rent increases but rent reductions. You know, actually affordable housing for people earning minimum wage, to allow them to save money and move up in the world.
Respect everyone you meet. Cashiers and fast food workers included. Look them in the eye. Thank them. Do not judge them. Do not pity them. Do not blame them for mistakes that they make. How many mistakes would you make if you did that work all day?
If you’re a member of the comfortable classes, cultivate friendships with people in the working classes, if possible. They will expect you to be condescending, and you might come across that way without intending to. Ask them what they need to improve their lives, and then use your privilege to help make it happen.
Be willing to pay what it costs for people to earn a living wage. Yes, that means food and clothing will cost more. If you’re a member of the comfortable classes, you can afford it.
Be kind to homeless people, and support efforts to provide them with jobs, housing, and adequate mental health care when needed. Don’t stigmatize them or try to NIMBY them out of your neighborhood.
Be willing to accept enough. Enough money, a big enough house, enough stuff, enough travel. You don’t really need more, and other people need some too.
In Part 4, I alluded to the fact that “there is emotional work to do here as well,” in the context of creating a more equitable economy. In the final three parts of this series, I want to dig deeper into what that emotional work entails, and at the same time examine why the emotional work that we are doing doesn’t seem to be addressing our overarching neoliberal economic inequality in a meaningful way.
That means that it’s time to take a hard look at social justice – the ideology that seeks to overcome identity-based oppression and that has become firmly entrenched on the leftward end of the American political spectrum. Admittedly this puts me in an awkward position; as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man, social justice etiquette would dictate that I ought to shut up and listen, and most certainly not criticize the overall framework in any way.
So, I offer a critique of mainstream social justice not in my own words, but in the words of three others. Cedric Johnson, a Black man, is an associate professor of political science and African-American Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Adolph Reed, also a Black man, is a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. Kai Cheng Thom, a transgender woman of Asian descent, is an author, speaker, and cultural worker based in Quebec.
Reed expresses the problem succinctly:
(A)lthough it often comes with a garnish of disparaging but empty references to neoliberalism as a generic sign of bad things, antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces so long as they are equitable along racial (and other identitarian) lines. As I and my colleague Walter Benn Michaels have insisted repeatedly over the last decade, the burden of that ideal of social justice is that the society would be fair if 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources so long as the dominant 1% were 13% black, 17% Latino, 50% female… etc.”
(T)he focus on racial disparity accepts the premise of neoliberal social justice that the problem of inequality is not its magnitude or intensity in general but whether or not it is distributed in a racially equitable way. To the extent that that is the animating principle of a left politics, it is a politics that lies entirely within neoliberalism’s logic.
Johnson expands on this line of reasoning, critiquing the prioritization of emotional antiracist work over concrete policy changes that would necessarily challenge both economic and racial privilege.
Whiteness studies has produced a form of anti-racist politics focused on public therapy rather than public policy, a politics that actually detracts from building social bonds and solidarity in the context of actual organizing campaigns, everyday life, and purposive political action.
The interpretive problems and faulty political assumptions of whiteness studies have become entrenched through the emergence of a therapeutic industry dedicated to rehabilitating interpersonal racism and addressing white privilege through acts of contrition, and have grown more dangerous as they have been amplified and degraded via social media. There is not much evidence that the expansion of this mode of anti-racist trainings over the last few decades has produced a different politics, a willingness to take risk, to sacrifice one’s privileged position to make substantive changes in society, or even altered day-to-day behavior.
If anything, whiteness deprogramming provides a ready means of egress, a way to demonstrate sympathy without making more difficult, sustained political commitments that might entail contesting institutionalized power. Neither does it require shedding or sharing the actual trappings of middle class privilege, i.e. better salaries, savings and assets, high performing schools, the capacity to travel, social networks, etc., which are codified in popular speech as white privilege, even though these same goods may be shared by other middle class and wealthy ethnics. Whiteness training encourages sharing one’s origin story, failings and sense of torment, but beyond charitable giving, it does not necessitate sharing resources at the level of redistributive public policy, i.e. through expansion of the universal social wage, commuter taxes, consolidation of urban-suburban school districts, revenue sharing across metropolitan divides, federally-managed public works projects etc.
There is also a millenarian and liberal individualist dimension to the kind of anti-racist politics embodied in whiteness studies, notions of white privilege and the like. We are told individuals must correct their flaws before they can participate with others, a view that runs counter to what should be conventional wisdom about human behavior and social movement dynamics. The assumption that the therapeutic work needs to happen first is simply wrong, and there are plenty of examples throughout history and in our own times where we can find imperfect people working to realize and advance their common concerns.
The work of building solidarity lies elsewhere, not in therapy aimed at self-actualization, but in lived social relations and sustained political work that transforms participants’ social consciousness and collective sense of historical possibility. Those everyday social relations and the context of political work are always defined by the presence of differences, whether those are differences of background, perspective, maturity, knowledge, insight, power, capacity, and passions, and none of these are calibrated strictly in concert with racial, ethnic, gender or other corporeal identities.
We should be able to talk about situated-class experiences, i.e., ascriptive gender and racial hierarchies, sectoral and regional variations in working lives, unique occupational subcultures, idiosyncratic worker concerns and daily issues, without losing sight of the fundamental capitalist class relation of exploitation, and the dependency on wage labor endured by the vast majority of the U.S. population. Moreover, when we discuss what are often treated as discrete identity-based issues, i.e. matters of hyperpolicing, health disparities, urban unemployment, environmental racism, the gender gap in wages, affordable housing crises and gentrification, we should be clear that those problems originate from the tremendous power capital wields over all of our lives, and contesting that power is essential to addressing those specific concerns and creating a more just state of affairs.
One effect of this is that we collect data on racial, ethnic, gender, and other identity-based discrepancies across a wide array of areas of concern: wages, hiring, college admissions, proportion of various workforces, deaths in police custody, deaths from various causes, and just about every aspect of society where data are collected. By pre-defining these identities to be the variables of interest, we can fail to properly determine causality when many other variables may be involved.
For example, we know that Black women experience pregnancy-related mortality at a rate three times that of white women. We can hypothesize that it is due to the stress of experiencing racism and underlying health conditions exacerbated by racism, but without further information as to the cause it is difficult to know where to focus activism. If it is due to direct experiences of racism, then antiracism training may be the answer, but if it is due to – say – poverty and lack of health insurance, then it would be better to focus on lifting these women – and all impoverished women – out of poverty and providing universal health care.
In the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests following the police murder of George Floyd, Johnson penned a critique that I highly recommend reading: The Triumph of Black Lives Matter and Neoliberal Redemption. In it, he notes that large corporations that were facing intense scrutiny and condemnation for their labor practices during the Covid-19 pandemic received a public relations windfall from their support of the Black Lives Matter protests. I quote some excerpts below.
Nearly all of the Democrat leadership who “took a knee” against racist policing, have openly opposed Medicare for All, free higher education, and the expansion of other public goods, but their technical reforms to reduce excessive force incidents and prosecute police for misconduct are the perfect way of displaying commitment to racial justice, while perpetuating the very pro-market logics and class relations that stress policing and mass incarceration were invented to protect.
Black Lives Matter sentiment is essentially a militant expression of racial liberalism. Such expressions are not a threat but rather a bulwark to the neoliberal project that has obliterated the social wage, gutted public sector employment and worker pensions, undermined collective bargaining and union power, and rolled out an expansive carceral apparatus, all developments that have adversely affected black workers and communities. Sure, some activists are calling for defunding police departments and de-carceration, but as a popular slogan, Black Lives Matter is a cry for full recognition within the established terms of liberal democratic capitalism. And the ruling class agrees.
During the so-called Black Out Tuesday social media event, corporate giants like Walmart and Amazon widely condemned the killing of George Floyd and other policing excesses. Gestural anti-racism was already evident at Amazon, which flew the red, black and green black liberation flag over its Seattle headquarters this past February. The world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos even took the time to respond personally to customer upset that Amazon expressed sympathy with the George Floyd protestors. “‘Black lives matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter,” the Amazon CEO wrote, “I have a 20-year-old son, and I simply don’t worry that he might be choked to death while being detained one day. It’s not something I worry about. Black parents can’t say the same.” Bezos also pledged $10 million in support of “social justice organizations”…..
The leadership of Warner, Sony Music and Walmart each committed $100 million to similar organizations. The protests have provided a public relations windfall for Bezos and his ilk. Only weeks before George Floyd’s killing, Amazon, Instacart, GrubHub and other delivery-based firms, which became crucial for commodity circulation during the national shelter-in-place, faced mounting pressure from labor activists over their inadequate protections, low wages, lack of health benefits and other working conditions. Corporate anti-racism is the perfect egress from these labor conflicts. Black lives matter to the front office, as long as they don’t demand a living wage, personal protective equipment and quality health care.
Our revolutionary fire burns bright as always, but I am afraid that it is being misdirected, co-opted. Neoliberalism, the deadly, advanced stage of the capitalist system in which we live, is stealing trans liberation.
Instead of being able to gain access to resources, we are given representation in mainstream media – a perk that helps us enjoy television and movies while continuing to suffer homelessness and joblessness. Instead of being granted freedom, we are being sold a product: an illusion of “equality” that is ultimately empty.
To achieve trans liberation, we must turn our gaze to ending neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism erodes human-rights movements in an insidious way. It co-opts the thinking and operations of human-rights activism by creating fear and scarcity, so that our political goals are forced to focus not on envisioning a better future for all but on personal survival. Hoarding resources, assimilation into the status quo, and no-holds-barred individualism are second nature to neoliberal thinking.
In my practice as a social worker, I see more and more wealthy, usually white, middle-class youth and children coming out as trans. It’s beautiful. They are brave and resilient; and sometimes, their families actually support them in transitioning and advocating for their access to school, healthcare, university.
Yet I see just as many trans youth, mostly of color, who are estranged from their families, living in shelters, blocked from accessing the resources they need for day-to-day living, let alone medical transition and higher education.
Trans visibility is brighter than ever, trans rights awareness is at an all-time high. Yet the class divide between trans people grows and grows.
The myth of exceptionalism has always been a cornerstone of neoliberal philosophy – this is the idea that since a few people can “make it” under capitalism, then everyone else can do the same. It is a myth that conflates the success of an individual with the prosperity of their entire class, and it is used to hide the barriers of systemic discrimination and violence.
If we view the American Casino (Part 2) as a rigged card game played with predetermined good hands and bad hands, then the strategy of neoliberal social justice is equivalent to handing out aces to people with marginalized identities. For those whose hands are already good, the ace can make a difference. For those whose hands offer no chance of winning, adding an ace usually doesn’t help. The deeply unethical rules of the game remain unquestioned.
Thom closes with an impassioned plea for a society in which trans people don’t just have representation among the elite, but freedom to thrive:
I am not the first trans person to make these arguments, and I will be far from the last. As a diasporic trans woman of color, I come from a history of brilliant thinkers and fierce activism.
As a generation of young trans people like myself with access to education and a public platform emerges, we will each have to ask ourselves the question: What battles will we choose to fight, and for whom? Will those of us with the greatest chance of succeeding as a part of the neoliberal status quo fight for our piece of the pie alone, or will we try to overturn the table of capitalism and white supremacy, as our revolutionary foreparents did before us?
I know that I don’t want to live in a world where trans people can access medical transition care only if they have the insurance to pay for it. I want everyone to get the healthcare they need.
I don’t want to live in a world where middle class trans people can use public washrooms, but homeless trans people are barred from public spaces. I want to live in a world where everyone has a home.
I don’t want to live in a world where trans people can join the military or the police and join in the violent oppression of people of color around the world. I want to live in a world without wars or police brutality.
I don’t want to live in a world where trans people are put in prisons that match their gender identity. I want to live in a world without prisons.
I don’t want to live in a world where a handful of trans celebrities make millions of dollars while the rest of us struggle to survive. I want to live in a world where we all have what we need to thrive.
I don’t want to live in a world where some trans people are considered normal and others are considered freaks. I want to live in a world where all of our freakish, ugly, gorgeous magnificence is celebrated for its honesty, glory, and possibility.
My dear trans kindred – weird sisters, brothers grim and gay, siblings-in-arms: What kind of world do you want to live in?
In Part 3, I made the case that an economy – a system of exchange – allowed to evolve without guidelines will naturally create inequality over time. While that is true and needs to be kept in mind as we work to develop an economy of, for, and by the people, it also glosses over an important detail of history: the global economic system of the last 40 or so years has been particularly problematic in terms of increasing inequality and attempting to eliminate any and all regulations enacted in the past to maintain a baseline standard of living.
The name – not often used – for the economic framework currently in place worldwide is “neoliberalism.” Rather than attempt to explain it myself, I encourage all of my readers to read this excellent essay on neoliberalism by George Monbiot. I will offer a few important excerpts here.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.
In effect, neoliberalism takes the ideal of a “free market” to its logical extreme, specifying that any and all impediments to a pure interplay of supply and demand dictating prices and wages – including laws, progressive taxes, and trade unions – should be abolished. The resulting distribution of goods and income is then defined to be free, fair, and not open to question.
The idea of neoliberal economics was born in 1938, but did not really gain traction until the Reagan and Thatcher administrations of the 1980s. Monbiot writes:
At first, despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins. The postwar consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high and governments sought social outcomes without embarrassment, developing new public services and safety nets.
Following economic crises in the 1970’s that exposed the limitations of Keynes’ prescriptions, neoliberalism was waiting in the wings and rapidly rose to prominence. Wealth inequality has increased steadily ever since.
Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.
Neoliberalism was not conceived as a self-serving racket, but it rapidly became one. Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era (since 1980 in Britain and the US) than it was in the preceding decades; but not for the very rich. Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.
Neoliberal economics has tried very hard to pass itself off as a law of nature, even to the point of eliminating use of the word “neoliberal” so as to simply become “the way things are.”
The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. “The market” sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations. What “the market wants” tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want. “Investment”, as Sayer notes, means two quite different things. One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities, the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains. Using the same word for different activities “camouflages the sources of wealth”, leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.
Monbiot discusses the ways in which neoliberalism has infected democratic politics, infiltrating both parties and dramatically limiting the political influence of anyone who does not have vast sums of money to spend.
Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.
He closes with a plea for developing a new economic system to replace neoliberalism, given that its failures have been clearly apparent since the crisis of 2008.
What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.
I will use the word “neoliberal” or “neoliberalism” to refer to our current economic system for the remainder of this series. “Capitalism” is frequently used as a synonym, but capitalism describes any economic system in which private business is the primary organizing principle – including the more equitable Keynesian economics of the 1940s-70s and much more social-welfare-oriented systems in place across northern Europe.
The main alternative to capitalism is socialism – in which the government owns and controls the means of production – and socialism has a poor track record of creating bloated, inefficient, and violently oppressive governments. My personal feeling is that an economy of, for, and by the people, designed to confront the needs and crises of the 21st century, could still fit loosely within the definition of capitalism.
These are some basic ideas as to what sorts of change would create an economy of, for, and by the people. My intention is not that this serve as a prescription but rather as the beginning of a conversation, as more people begin to wake up to the inequity of our current system and demand justice.
A movement, not a revolution
There is much within our economy that is equitable at present, and the economy still performs its original function of providing compensation for our contributions to society, thereby allowing us to purchase the contributions of others. The concept that a willing seller and a willing buyer will settle on a fair price for a good or service in a free market works in most cases, provided that demand is discretionary. And this free market system ensures that we collectively produce what we collectively wish to buy, and it offers plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurship and creativity.
We don’t need to adopt socialism, communism, or any other alternative to a free market economy that has been tried – and has usually failed – around the world over the past century. We just need to impose a few simple rules – the equivalent of legislative checks and balances – to limit human greed and exploitation, to ensure that my right to swing my metaphorical economic fist ends at the tip of your metaphorical economic nose.
Furthermore, we don’t need to steal anyone’s wealth. This is a controversial idea, I realize, given that the range of net worth in today’s America spans a factor of 100 million, but I feel that this can only be a peaceful transition if we respect that the rules of the game remain valid until they are changed, and that people will not be penalized for having played and won at the old game. If all of these changes are implemented, economic hardship in the working class will ease immediately, and the overall distribution of wealth will equalize over a couple of generations.
An equitable economy can still have personal wealth. I think most of us would agree that J.K. Rowling deserves to be a millionaire, for example, and if people are willing to spend millions attending professional basketball games, then the players deserve to have millions. Personal wealth alone is not an indicator of inequity; it is the aspects of the system that extract wealth, and allow wealth to beget more wealth, that must change.
We cannot win a battle for equity with violence. Those who are angry enough to lead a violent revolution are destined to become the new oppressors. History is full of revolutions of this sort. Instead we must be steadfast and insistent in our commitment to basic human dignity, following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, building a movement that demands change but not retribution.
Taxes are not the answer
The standard method to address wealth inequality in the United States has been to leave the economy alone but to impose progressively higher taxes on the upper classes. This is akin to treating the symptoms of a disease rather than the cause, and it has the added effect of being divisive because we are arbitrarily deciding exactly how much of whose wealth is being claimed. Most people would rather earn a million dollars than earn two million and pay half in taxes. Taxes could be a part of the program in the nearer term, but ultimately I would like to see a flat % tax on a fair distribution of income.
What follows is a basic system of reforms to remove exploitation from the economy, which need not be implemented all at once, and with the most urgent changes listed first.
1. No profit from basic human rights
As we established in Part III: People will pay almost any price within their means to meet their basic needs, if there is no other option.
Within our current economic system we already have services that are deemed “public utilities.” Most of us pay a monthly fee to have safe drinking water piped to our homes and sewage piped away, and every year our cities send out a financial summary showing how those funds were spent. Water and sewer services are essential, so if our cities decided to triple the price we would still pay it if we could, but instead we have reached a collective agreement to cover the costs and pay the city workers a fair wage.
We should immediately begin to replicate that model for two basic human rights whose costs have ballooned in recent decades: housing and health care. Landlords, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies should be subject to the same oversight, transparency, and cost reporting requirements as city waterworks, with restrictions on excessive compensation and strict penalties for profiteering.
I am in favor of universal health care, but only if we first act to reduce costs and increase oversight by declaring essential care to be a public utility. If we do not do this, we will simply transfer the exploitation from patients and insurance companies to the government payroll, and the inequity will continue to depress take-home income and weigh down the economy.
2. Living wage for all essential work (and respect for all essential work!)
Addressing #1 first will make this easier to accomplish, which is why I listed it second, but this should be the top priority of any economic reform. And by a living wage I don’t mean enough to stay housed and buy food, but enough to:
Provide all basic needs for oneself and one child
Make payments on a modest house
Save enough to cover emergencies
Save enough to cover eventual retirement without relying on investment returns beyond inflation, and
Have enough left over to pursue hobbies and take occasional vacations.
Going back to our wealth chart, a living wage is one that will, with responsible spending and money management, land someone firmly in the “security” range by the time they are ready to retire.
I am not suggesting that all work should pay equally, and indeed I believe neurosurgeons still ought to be amply rewarded and promotions still ought to be offered based on performance and seniority. Rather, I am suggesting that the floor needs to be raised by a lot.
We depend equally on all of the hours of human labor that support our society and provide our collective needs: the apple pickers and the attorneys, the janitors and the teachers, the fast food workers and the cashiers, the contractors and the managers, the accountants and the doctors, the meat packers and the truck drivers. To suggest that people in any of these roles do not deserve comfort and security in life is to say we do not value your contribution to society.
Too often in present society that lack of financial respect translates to a lack of actual respect. We look down on cashiers and bus drivers, or fail to interact with them as human beings, as if to judge and say you could have done something better with your life, but you didn’t. That would be a little more OK if they were playing video games in their parents’ basement, but instead they are working their butts off, providing a service without which the rest of us could not survive. This disdain is a projection of our internalized elitism. We tell ourselves stories about how we deserve what we have and those who earn little deserve to earn little, and in so doing we diminish them in our own eyes and in our interactions.
There is emotional work to be done here as well, but if we can raise the minimum wage to a level that supports human life, we will raise the self-respect and self-worth of all of our essential workers, and in so doing begin to grant them the respect that they deserve in our own eyes as well.
3. Decommodify, relocalize, and restore relationship to transactions.
As we established in Part III: When transactions become abstracted or commodified, with no connection between producer and consumer, competition rewards exploitation.
A commodity is any good or service whose only distinguishing feature is price. When something becomes a commodity, the result is a race to the bottom, leading to exploitation of humans and the environment and externalization of costs. The more we can restore connections and relationships between producers and consumers, the more we will be able to ethically choose what we buy. There is no one solution here, but reforms might include:
tariffs and trade barriers to disincentivize offshoring and exploitation of lower-cost foreign labor, and to allow domestic producers paying fair wages to compete.
certifications (e.g. fair trade) that ensure an equitable distribution of wealth along the supply chain.
producer stories and personal notes added to products, to rehumanize producers in the eyes of consumers.
efforts to build resilient local food webs, local artisan marketplaces, local currency initiatives, and other incentives to relocalize and remove intermediaries from transactions.
Awareness campaigns to shed light on unethical practices and inspire change.
4. Money should not make money
As we established in Part III:
Investment income requires no work or contribution to society, and so provides the earner with the ability to purchase more of others’ time and effort while contributing none of their own.
Any investment that provides a return greater than inflation without requiring work or reasonably compensating for risk of loss is structurally elitist. Such returns are effectively pay for no work, and yet this pay can be redeemed to purchase the work of others. These investments may be directly exploitative (e.g. loans and mortgages repaid with interest) or indirectly exploitative (e.g. government securities repaid with taxes, or shareholder profits taken from corporate revenue), but they always entail a transfer of wealth from people who have fewer financial resources to people who have more.
This is a tougher nut to crack, because many people’s retirement plans are contingent on money continuing to make money. That is to say, changing this rule of the game now presents a moral dilemma in that many people would have behaved differently – perhaps set more money aside – had they known the rules would change.
At the same time, it may not be possible to provide everyone with a living wage so long as investment income continues to siphon wealth out of the system, providing the ability to purchase goods and services without requiring any contribution to society in return.
Not all investments are inherently unethical. The lower-risk, lower-return options like government bonds and mortgage-backed securities are actually more problematic than higher-risk, higher-return investments. The idea of buying and selling stock was originally created to allow people with money to invest in the risky process of starting and expanding businesses. Some businesses succeed and investors see a great return, while others fail and investors lose their money. On the whole this functions as a high-stakes betting game that also helps entrepreneurs to realize their dreams, and it doesn’t extract money from society at large.
The ethical problems arise primarily from investments whose returns depend on interest, which is money paid by those who have less to those who have more, in return for temporary access to additional funds. The entire system whereby everyone is encouraged to accrue debt and pay interest is extractive and serves to create a wealth curve that looks like the one below, which is exactly what we are trying to get away from.
This problem may ultimately be solved for us, in that investment returns are predicated on economic growth, and economic growth is following a long-term trajectory toward zero as population stabilizes and we reach our planet’s resource carrying capacity.
In the near term, I would propose a phased-in approach, whereby interest rates are lowered in a tiered fashion and ultimately pinned to the rate of inflation, with rate increases allowed only to compensate for risk. At the same time, minimum returns on retirement savings up to a certain amount would be insured for those currently retired or retiring in the next 20 years or so.
There is much to figure out in this area, but the ultimate conclusion remains the same: in an ethical economy, money should not, as a rule, make money.
5. Wealth should not be inherited
This is controversial as well, but necessary if we are to level the playing field. If we can agree that a person should not have privilege in life by virtue of being born white, then we should also be able to agree that a person should not have privilege by virtue of being born wealthy.
At the same time it is a perfectly reasonable desire for parents to want to share their success with their children. Some compromise is necessary, perhaps a maximum of $500,000 or so that can be transferred from one generation to the next, in cash or in assets, before or upon death. Anything above this amount can be donated to charities of choice, or else will be claimed for public purpose, perhaps to provide a basic income to those who are unable to work, or to insure returns on retirement accounts for those who are no longer receiving investment income.
Can we make this happen?
Two weeks ago I had no idea I would be writing this series. Then as the world began to rise up against inequity in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the words began to come to me. What was going to be one essay became two, then three, then four as outlines and graphs filled bits of scratch paper. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else until it was completed.
Perhaps this is not the time for a wider distribution. I do not wish to distract from the cause of racial justice that is at the forefront right now, and is finally beginning to achieve what it has been fighting for for decades and centuries. I stand with that cause 100%.
At the same time, I feel strongly that we – by which I mean economically privileged white people in the United States – cannot in any way consider ourselves champions of equality if we stand behind social/racial justice while ignoring economic justice. Not only are the two causes intersectional – in that marginalized groups are disproportionately impoverished – but we cannot truly mean what we say about confronting privilege if we only confront that privilege which requires the least sacrifice.
Writing this has changed me, in ways that I did not entirely expect. I cannot poke holes in my own moral arguments, and so I find that I will be making different choices moving forward. I will find it much harder to charge market rates for rent, for one thing, and I will be more aware of the products that I buy and who I choose to support with my purchases. I will be more particular about how I am willing to earn income. I do not know if this is destined to be read, or to make a difference in the world, but it came to me, came through me in a way, and I had no choice but to bring it to fruition. If you read it, please share your thoughts, and share it with others if you wish. We have a difficult road ahead of us, paved as it is with climate change, resource shortages, energy shortages, overpopulation, and global pandemics. We can fragment based on fear and survival, and so confront the future unprepared and in disarray, or we can unite based on our shared humanity and so rise to the occasion. To unite we must confront and eliminate our old inequities.
The way that we formulate words both belies and influences the way that we think.
Economists have tricked us.
They have convinced us that their statements are value-neutral, that they are just reporting facts about the world.
They. Are. Wrong.
The economy, from community bartering up through Wal-mart and Wall Street, is entirely a creation of human beings. Everything that happens within the economy occurs as a result of human decisions. Human decisions may be self-centered or altruistic, helpful or harmful, and are subject to moral assessment. Therefore every economic “truth” is subject to moral assessment. Every aspect of the system was crafted or molded by human minds. Nothing “just is.” It is high time that we take a closer look at the rules of this game we all play by virtue of being alive in this time and place, and whose stakes are quite literally life and death.
We tend to think of economics as boring. But the economy is not just Wall Street or the Dow Jones Index. It is not just employment numbers or any other statistic released by the government. The economy is everything we own, everything we have ever purchased or eaten or shared with our friends or made with our hands. It determines whether we have a place to live, enough to eat, freedom to follow our dreams, care for our bodies if we are sick. It determines our net worth, and by extension – in many ways – our self-worth.
For all that the economy defines our experience, we spend relatively little energy thinking about it, how it came to be, how it really works, when it is fair and unfair and what determines that difference. So let’s take a quick journey through the evolution of our economic system, with our eyes open for pitfalls and avenues for exploitation.
The money economy began thousands of years ago, long after humans began trading among themselves. One person went fishing perhaps, then traded the fish for flour, firewood, and clothing. But what if the woodcutter didn’t want any fish? Such was the reason for currency. The fisher could sell fish for coins and then buy goods with the coins, and in so doing obtain what she needed. But how many coins was the fish worth? Or the wood? That was for each buyer and seller to negotiate, and so was born a fundamental tenet of economics that remains printed in textbooks to this day: the fair price for a good or service is the value agreed upon by a willing seller and a willing buyer in a free market.
Unfortunately this supposed “law” is only true if the buyer and seller have similar levels of power, which is to say that they can both walk away from an unfair offer. This is very easy to illustrate, but typically omitted from textbooks. Let’s say our fisher gets sick, and the doctor in the village has a lifesaving medicine. If they’re friends they will agree on a price that is commensurate with the knowledge and effort required to produce the medicine. If the doctor is an enemy, he might demand the fisher’s house in return. Then the fisher might call up some friends and go knock some sense into the doctor, or steal the medicine. But let’s say the doctor is also a skilled swordsman. With no recourse, the fisher offers up her house to the doctor in return for the medicine. We have a willing seller, a willing buyer, and a free market, but does this mean that a house is a fair price for some lifesaving medicine? Of course not! It just means that the doctor has both greed and power.
Ethical red flag #1:People will pay almost any price within their means to meet their basic needs, if there is no other option.
Now let’s say another fisher moves to town who has big nets that catch indiscriminately and workers who he treats like slaves, and he starts selling fish for half the price. But the townsfolk love their fisherwoman, and know she does honest work, and so they continue to buy her fish. But then a merchant moves in and sets up a store where the townsfolk can buy all of their food and supplies in one place. The townsfolk, finding it convenient, go to the store and stop buying directly from the fishers and farmers. The merchant, wanting to earn as much money as possible, buys her fish from the new fisherman, and so our fisherwoman is forced to either sell at a loss or find a way to compete. In the language of economics, fish has just become a commodity – that is, a product disconnected from its maker or any other distinguishing features. Economics textbooks will say that competition in a commodity market leads to increases in efficiency, with the implicit assumption that efficiency is always a good thing. Unfortunately, efficiency more often than not means exploitation – of people, of the environment, or both.
Ethical red flag #2:When transactions become abstracted or commodified, with no connection between producer and consumer, competition rewards exploitation.
Now let’s say our fisherwoman is determined to stay in business, but she knows that in order to compete with the new man in town she will need nets, employees, and more boats. So she visits the merchant, who by now has money to spare, and asks for a loan. The merchant agrees provided that, in five years time, she pays back the money plus 20% “interest”. The fisher, not having any other good options, accepts the terms and expands her business. She is now able to compete but ends up selling her house to pay the interest on the loan. Meanwhile the merchant turns a tidy profit without doing any work. Economics textbooks devote many chapters to the ways in which money can be invested to earn returns. The question of whether money ought to earn money is never asked.
Ethical red flag #3:Investment income requires no work or contribution to society, and so provides the earner with the ability to purchase more of others’ time and effort while contributing none of their own.
It’s easy to see from our fisherfolk example that, once extended beyond a small community bound by social ties, a system of currency designed to facilitate exchange will naturally evolve to reward exploitation and generate wealth inequality. It’s equally clear that a few simple rules could prevent this from occurring, and we’ll get to that in Part IV. For now, I want to focus on the near-complete absence of an ethical dimension in the realm of economics.
Allowed to evolve without guidance or intent, political systems will tend toward autocracy and monarchy. Leaders initially supported by the will of the people will naturally act in their own self-interest to perpetuate their power such that the people will come to serve their leaders, rather than leaders serving the people. A fifteenth century political science textbook would have described this process as natural and inevitable, and devoted many chapters to the roles of peasantry and nobility. If it included any ethics, it would have been along the lines of “what makes a good king?” with no question as to whether kings ought to exist in the first place.
Then, in the mid-1700s, something changed. A group of intellectuals who found themselves an ocean apart from their king decided to try a new approach. Rather than asking how the system worked, they asked themselves how it ought to work. How might a system of governance be intentionally created to be resistant to the forces of human nature that lead to tyranny, in order to serve the people in perpetuity. In an explicit rejection of the old system, the Declaration of Independence, they wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
This was radical at the time, and the structure of government they devised, with three distinct branches and checks and balances to prevent any branch from attempting to consolidate power, has survived for 244 years and has been copied and improved upon by democracies around the world.
There is some cruel irony in the fact that several of the men who penned these words owned human slaves, but at the same time it is laudable that their founding documents described not a system of government specifically of, for, and by rich white men, but a government of, for, and by “the people”, which allowed the definition of “the people” to be expanded over time to include non-landowners, freed slaves, and women without needing to change the basic structure of government.
It should also be noted that because the Founding Fathers were wealthy and privileged, near the top of the economic ladder, it is not at all surprising that they made no attempt to create an economy of, for, and by the people. The economy as it existed worked just fine for them, so long as they didn’t have to pay taxes to the King of England. The result has been that, at several times throughout US history and increasingly in the present moment, economic inequality has become a threat to the institution of democracy. If votes can be purchased through the media, or if monetary influence can circumvent the will of the voters, or if people are sufficiently disenfranchised that they will vote for an angry strongman with no talent for leadership, then democracy is in crisis.
The science of economics was developed by the winners – those who earned money from investment rather than hard work – and so it ultimately served two ends:
To educate those with wealth, and their children, as to the best ways to maintain and increase their wealth, and
To explicitly define the system as it is to be free, fair, and not open to ethical analysis.
The ethics in our economics textbooks remains at the level of “what makes a good king.” We can talk about people who benefit from breaking the rules (insider trading, pyramid schemes, “predatory lending”) or about applying our values to our economic decisions within the existing framework (e.g. “socially responsible investing”), but the system itself remains inviolate.
We can start by recognizing human agency in statements about the economy.
What they say
What it really means
Labor is cheaper in (some country).
The government and elite of (some country) have conspired with other nations and multinational corporations to devalue the labor of their lower classes.
The cost of healthcare has doubled since the 1980s.
After adjusting for inflation, healthcare providers are charging twice as much for the same services as they did 35 years ago.
The cost of public college has tripled since 1990.
After adjusting for inflation, public colleges are charging three times more for the same services as they did 30 years ago.
The average American now spends 37% of their income on housing costs.
Landlords and real estate investors are earning record profits from a basic human right, with little to no investment of time or effort on their part.
Jobs in the manufacturing sector have decreased.
Companies have moved their manufacturing operations to countries with cheaper labor and fewer environmental regulations.
The weather in Phoenix is hot and sunny.
The weather in Phoenix is hot and sunny.
We see the statements in the left column as headlines in newspapers and trade publications, and we are encouraged to plan accordingly. Save more for college and healthcare, find a job with health benefits, find a roommate to save on housing costs. Such is the extent of our power, we are told, to react and adapt. But the reality is in the right column. Economics is not like the weather, that just is the way it is and so we must adapt. Whenever an economic change causes pain, someone did something harmful to someone else, for their own economic gain. We could adapt and move on, we could censure them – in the hope that they will be good kings – or we could change the system so that those actions are no longer possible.
The framework of social justice has introduced most of us to the terms structural racism and implicit bias. Structural racism is any racial discrimination that is “baked in” to the rules or norms of society, such that we can be “good people” in terms of playing by the rules but still be discriminating. Implicit bias (in a race context) is any action that causes racial harm without intending to do so – typically due to structural racism.
It is high time that we applied these concepts to our economy. To do so, we must remember that the only ethical function of the economy is to provide a means of exchange: payment for our contribution to society so that we might purchase the contributions of others. A basic doctrine of ethical economics can be summed up neatly as:
Equal pay for equal work (within and between countries)
Adequate pay for all essential work
No work, no pay (except to keep up with inflation, and for people unable to work), and
Fair prices for basic needs (food, shelter, medicine, etc.)
Few of us would disagree with these ideals, and yet our economic reality violates all four on a daily basis.
It is implicit bias to pay foreign workers less than domestic workers for the same jobs, simply because structural inequalities have set the going rate lower. To do so is to say: your time is worth less to me, because of who and where you are.
It is implicit bias to pay anyone less than the cost of living for full time work doing anything, unless they have agreed to volunteer. To do so is to say: you do not deserve to have your basic needs met.
Any investment that provides a return greater than inflation without requiring work or reasonably compensating for risk of loss is structurally elitist. Such returns are effectively pay for no work, and yet this pay can be redeemed to purchase the work of others. These investments may be directly exploitative (e.g. loans and mortgages repaid with interest) or indirectly exploitative (e.g. government securities repaid with taxes, or shareholder profits taken from corporate revenue), but they always entail a transfer of wealth from people who have fewer financial resources to people who have more.
Any housing or medicine that is offered at a price higher than the cost incurred plus the value of the labor invested constitutes implicit bias. The “market rate” is irrelevant, because demand for essential needs is inflexible and so buyers will pay any price up to and including bankruptcy. To profit by offering these services is to say: by virtue of having privilege (as a property owner or care provider), I am entitled to accumulate wealth at your expense.
What then shall we do about it?
If we believe, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, that “All (Humans) Are Created Equal,” then we have a clear obligation to give everyone a fair shot at “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That is to say, once we recognize the inequity of our economic system, we cannot ethically ignore it any more than we can ignore human slavery, genocide, or the structural racism that led to the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others. Here’s what we can do in this time:
Assess our own personal lives from the framework of ethical economics. How do we earn our money? How many hours of others’ labor is invested in the goods and services that we purchase, and how does this compare to the number of hours that we spend working? This is probably impossible to answer, but it is helpful in thinking about equity. How is the system exploiting us? Loans? Mortgage interest? Rent? Low wages? How are we benefiting from the exploitation of others? We don’t need to be too hard on ourselves; we are participants in the system, but we are not responsible for it.
Commit to changing the system. Realize that putting that change into effect means that any of our income that currently derives from unethical exchanges will disappear, and accept that. If we can begin to eliminate unethical exchanges from our lives in a way that benefits others, do so.
Network. Tell this story, to challenge the narrative that the economy as we know it is fair and beyond question and impossible to change. Those who have been beaten down by the economy will not believe that change is possible. But it is. The economy is nothing more than the sum total of human exchanges. It is us. If the ~70% of Americans in the red zone of exploitation (from Part I) could rise up together, we could easily change the system.
Make people uncomfortable. But don’t judge them or call them out. Lead by example, and calmly point out the ways in which the system is unethical. Induce cognitive dissonance. Most people believe they are good and have earned their wealth by honestly playing by the rules. They are not wrong, and implicit bias is not a crime. If we tell them they are bad, they will react defensively and close themselves off to our message. If we tell them they are good, but it is hard to watch good people inadvertently hurting others, and would they consider following our lead in making or advocating for changes… they may still cling to their story, but a seed of doubt will be planted.
Stop romanticizing the American Casino. A few people from the wheat fields of Kansas and the streets of Chicago will end up as movie stars and investment bankers. That makes for some good stories, but the chance that anyone can strike it rich does not excuse the reality that tens of millions of people work 40+ hours a week doing essential work for their entire lives only to remain locked in poverty.
Join the conversation and help to envision an ethical economy. As more people escape from the old story, we can build a movement and move forward together. I’ll lay out a possible platform for change in Part IV: Changing the Rules of the Game, but that’s just one possible framework, and perhaps there are other changes that would be more important.
To understand how economic inequality is created and exacerbated over time, it is helpful to examine society along a different set of axes:
On the horizontal axis we have level of wealth. I’m less concerned with numbers of dollars or pounds of gold here than I am with the ability to provide basic needs, cover emergencies and eventual retirement, or make discretionary purchases. I have divided this into five categories:
Survival: Some basic needs go unmet due to insufficient resources.
Subsistence: Basic needs are met but with no cushion to cover emergencies.
Comfort: Sufficient cushion to cover emergencies, and some retirement savings, but assets may not be sufficient to cover retirement years or a major emergency.
Security: Sufficient assets to cover retirement or most foreseeable emergencies, but some decisions are still constrained by available wealth.
Abundance: Money is typically not a concern in making life decisions; all options are on the table.
On the vertical axis we have average wealth trajectory. This is defined as the average change in level of wealth over time across all people in society who share the same position on the horizontal axis. In the green (“accumulation”) zone wealth is increasing, while in the red (“exploitation”) zone wealth is stable or decreasing, and workers are not being paid a fair wage for their labor.
Finally, the thickness of the line is roughly proportional to the number of people in that position.
Let’s start by examining a feudal society, which looks something like this:
Peasants, the majority of the population, are locked into poverty by heavy taxation and a lack of land ownership, while the upper classes accumulate the extracted wealth to reach – in the case of nobility – a high level of opulence. This is also a caste system, in that peasants have essentially zero opportunity to rise into the merchant or nobility classes, and the higher classes have no risk of falling into the peasantry.
In contrast, the generalized American chart looks like this:
With no rigid castes, people have a nonzero chance of following a rags-to-riches or riches-to-rags trajectory – which makes for good stories – but on the whole the poorest folks remain stuck in poverty and the richest folks get richer. Moreover, the shape of this curve guarantees that wealth inequality will increase over time. Playing the game of life in America is less like a dream and more like a trip to the casino. Winning big is a possibility for anyone, but the deck is stacked; those who play with hundreds usually take home thousands while those who play with quarters are often left with dimes.
To understand our current moment, it is helpful to examine this chart at different moments in history. Early America looked something like this:
White people mainly stayed out of the red zone – their fortunes increased – thanks to the institution of slavery which exploited the labor of a vast number of people while paying the returns to the upper echelons.
In the decades following World War II – from 1945 through about 1990 – the curve looked more like this:
The letters are the four quadrants of American society from last week:
Now, as we will discuss in Part III, economic eras don’t just happen of their own accord. A period of prosperity is not like a period of good weather. A period of prosperity for some is inevitably a period of exploitation for others, and so it is not a coincidence that this was also a period when the United States established itself as a global superpower and brokered deals with governments and elite around the world that led to exploitation on a massive scale. So while a majority of Americans were accumulating wealth, “developing” nations around the world looked like this:
The incredibly damaging and unethical process through which entire nations were converted from largely self-sufficient economies to pools of cheap labor for the global elite is worthy of its own series of posts, but for the purposes of this series it is sufficient to know that it transferred immense wealth to the upper classes of American society, created unsustainable economic growth, and put downward pressure on wages for any industry that could be exported.
Eventually the global dominance of the United States began to wane as other countries got in on the exploitation game and exploited countries began to rise up and demand fairer terms of trade. At the same time, those at the top continued to demand rates of return in excess of what available wealth could reasonably supply without increasing exploitation. That brings us to today, when the situation in America looks like this:
Compared to forty years ago, the most significant changes are:
The white working class has fallen into the red zone, due to offshoring of jobs and downward pressure on wages.
The red zone now encompasses a majority of American citizens.
The middle class – in the “comfort” zone on the chart – has decreased in relative size.
Quadrant C – the “professional-managerial class,” has grown in size, wealth, and influence.
Quadrant D – the wealthiest, now extends off the chart in terms of wealth and wealth trajectory.
Once again, we see an oppressed majority and an elite minority, and we can also separate racial/social oppression (differences in outlook and opportunity unrelated to level of wealth) from purely economic oppression (differences in outlook and opportunity solely dependent on level of wealth).
This chart only captures racial oppression that results in loss of economic opportunity – like housing and hiring discrimination – but not the insults hurled in stores, deaths and beatings by police, and whispered comments and sidelong glances that make racial and cultural minorities into second-class citizens in American society. So we must focus on finally rooting out racism in this time of uprising and solidarity.
At the same time, we need to recognize that at this moment in history, members of the white working class are also second-class citizens. And since the vast majority of people of color are in the working classes, that means that even if we succeed in stomping out racism entirely, in the absence of economic reform these people will still be second-class citizens. Racial and economic reforms are not in competition; they are intersectional and equally essential if we are to attain the equality that we seek.
If we are going to change this curve, it’s worth asking ourselves what it ought to look like. The standard elitist/capitalist argument against economic equality is that enforced equality stifles ambition and fails to reward hard work and entrepreneurship. That is to say, they reject a socialist society that looks like this:
But that is a straw man argument, since no complex society has ever looked like this and very few if any people are proposing such an arrangement. We can continue to reward hard work and ambition while ensuring that basic needs are met for everyone, and we can accept some degree of wealth differential if we can un-stack the deck, ensure that all people have a fair shot, and prevent wealth discrepancies from propagating across generations. In short, we could shoot for a society that looks like this:
To get there, we will need to change the rules of the game. That’s coming in Part IV, but before we get there we need to examine how it is that economic policies and decisions have so far avoided ethical scrutiny. We need to apply the framework of social justice – including implicit bias and structural inequality – to the realm of economics. That will be the focus of Part III: Rehumanizing the Economy.
We are certainly living in interesting times. It feels to me that we are entering a period of instability, during which change is possible – perhaps inevitable – and during which the outcome is ultimately uncertain and small acts have the potential to alter the course of history. I feel called to write and share my perspectives in this moment; I have no reason to believe they will have a profound effect but I encourage anyone reading to engage, sit with your own thoughts, add to the conversation, and share if it resonates with you.
We have been living in a tense stability for the past two decades, our nation increasingly angry and polarized, leading up to the election of an angry and polarizing president. So far in 2020 we have seen three shocks to that stability: the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic turmoil arising from the lockdowns and shutdowns in response to the pandemic, and the current public outcry surrounding the deadly combination of racial prejudice and police violence that has resulted in far too many deaths of innocent Black people in the United States in recent years.
The COVID-19 lockdown proved that we are capable of shutting down our economic juggernaut in response to a collective demand, in the face of a disease that will from a historical perspective appear be a relatively modest threat. Prior to 2020 I would not have expected this to happen. Instead I would have expected that the wheels would be kept turning at all costs, with deaths minimized or carefully ignored in the media to avoid impacting “consumer confidence” and the almighty dollar. But that didn’t happen, and instead we were given a glimpse into the the invisible behind-the-scenes reality of meat-packing plants and Amazon warehouses, where thousands of human beings labor long hours in poor conditions for little pay, in roles that are absolutely essential for all of us to eat and to acquire the supplies that we need.
The recession that in all likelihood is just beginning has disproportionately impacted the lower rungs of the American economic ladder, increasing the number of people living on the edge of bankruptcy or homelessness. Meanwhile, the Black Lives Matter protests have demonstrated that we are capable of having empathy, of standing up for social justice, of putting ourselves in the place of George Floyd and Philando Castile and so many others and standing up together to demand change.
Taken together, these three shocks have given me hope that we may finally be ready to confront the elephant in the room, the story that is carefully avoided by the media but that is in many ways responsible for the accelerating breakdown of civil society, the fundamental and immoral inequality that is – like racism – as old as society and civilization itself. I am speaking, of course, about our structurally unjust economic system that creates haves and have-nots: that privileges some while oppressing others.
Those familiar with early American history will remember a pamphlet called Common Sense, published by Thomas Paine in early 1776. At the time, the idea of a government of, for, and by the people was radical, new, and untested, and while the colonists suffered under the English monarchy they knew of no other option. Paine’s mission was to persuade the people, in clear and straightforward language, that self-government was not only a viable option but the only ethical and reasonable option. It is my hope that this series of essays might serve a similar purpose: to suggest that it is time for an economy of, for, and by the people, and that indeed such an economy is the only moral option.
Before I begin, I want to emphasize that this is a moment for racial justice in America, and I in no way wish to detract from that. So please…center Black voices, join in the protests, and stand up against police violence, racial profiling, and all of the other injustices that collectively confront and continue to oppress minorities in this country. If this movement can be successful in forcing meaningful change against the established forces of the police and white supremacy, then we will emerge empowered to confront the much stronger forces of economic dominion. At the same time, I want to caution that racial justice alone is not enough. If the end result of the racial justice movement is only to elevate oppressed minorities to the level of the white working class, their lives will remain a daily struggle and their human dignity will still be far from assured.
I also want to add that movements for justice and equality should not be about defining Good People and Bad People. To make such judgments is divisive and enormously counterproductive. We are up against forces that control the narrative and the guns, and by declaring them evil we put them on the defensive, draw the lines of battle, and all but guarantee our own defeat. Instead we need to recognize that most people in positions of power and privilege view themselves as moral, ethical people who have achieved success by playing by the rules of the game. We need to relentlessly point out the ways in which those rules are unfair and tell the stories of those who have been personally affected. We need to take to the streets, united in our conviction. We need to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the privileged, as they recognize the ways in which their actions have contributed to the suffering of others. This cognitive dissonance will make them less motivated to fight against change, even if change will bring a reduction in wealth and status. Finally, we need to change the rules of the game, and invite the formerly privileged to play by the new rules without threat of retribution for past actions. Only in this way can a rift be healed and progress be made without simply oppressing the oppressors and repeating the old patterns anew.
With that, let us begin…
America in four quadrants
I find it useful to look at the United States along two axes, as follows:
I struggled as to which labels to give to the axes, as there are no words that fully capture the distinctions. As I use these terms, my definitions are:
Cooperative: Focused more on the good of the whole and the well-being of others than on winning. People may be cooperative because they have been excluded from competition, because they value comfort over uncertainty, or for purely personal reasons. Cooperative people are more likely to agree with the statement “we’re all in this together.”
Competitive: Focused more on survival/success/winning on individual, family, corporate, or national levels than on the well-being of all. People may be competitive because they feel like there are not enough resources to go around or because they feel like it is the only path to success in a competitive world. Competitive people are more likely to agree with “family first” or “America first” slogans and with statements like “only the strong survive.”
Populist: Struggling economically, concerned about inadequate compensation for labor, and feeling that honest work is being unfairly exploited to benefit those who already have wealth and privilege.
Elitist: Economically comfortable, with a feeling of having righteously earned that comfort, and with a tendency to rationalize the suffering of those lower on the economic ladder by employing alternative explanations (e.g. racism, prejudice) or by making usually-inaccurate assumptions (e.g. laziness, lack of ambition).
Populism and elitism track closely with economic status. Not surprisingly, those who are comfortable tend to rationalize that comfort to avoid cognitive dissonance, while those who are suffering tend to harbor resentment and a desire for change. The cooperative-competitive axis, on the other hand, seems to be embedded within human nature, and is exemplified by the differences between the peaceful bonobos and warlike chimpanzees, who are otherwise genetically identical and are our nearest evolutionary neighbors. We are all capable of adopting a more cooperative or more competitive mindset, and we will do so in response to our sense of security, social pressures, childhood experiences, and a host of other factors.
I’m going to be talking about these groups a lot, so I’ve taken the liberty of assigning them letters. I have also attempted to estimate each group’s proportion of the US population, +/-10% or so.
Within the current two-party system, the divide looks like this:
We can place presidents and candidates over the last 40 years into this framework:
As populist discontent has grown, it has become more difficult to win elections without a populist message. At the same time, given the amount of money required to win and the elite bias of the media, it has remained impossible for true populists to gain traction. As a result, our last two presidents have been elitists with populist messaging, from a cooperative (Obama) and competitive (Trump) perspective, and the losers have been elitists who failed to connect with the lower classes (McCain, Romney, Hillary Clinton). There is a lot of hand-wringing about Obama-Trump voters: those people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and for Trump in 2016. The media can’t understand, or doesn’t want us to understand, that it is possible for prioritize the populist-elitist distinction over the cooperative-competitive distinction. That would open up the possibility of a realignment of the quadrants in a way that would create a populist majority, which is something that the elite would like to avoid at all costs.
In the context of racial prejudice, the media tends to portray this narrative:
That is to say, it’s the hillbillies and rednecks who are the problem, the “deplorables”, the Proud Boys, the police, the attitudes of the ignorant and uneducated.
But if we dig a little deeper we can easily identify structural racism and implicit bias within the elite classes. Companies are less likely to hire Black applicants. Real estate agents are less likely to show good houses to Black families, and banks are less likely to offer them loans. Supposedly “liberal” and “accepting” whites are still alarmingly likely to call police on Black people simply going about their lives. And the list goes on. So in reality the picture looks more like this:
This isn’t the whole story, however, because race is not the only axis of oppression in American society. From an economic perspective, anyone outside the comfortable classes is feeling some pain. Between rising costs and stagnant wages, the purchasing power of the lower half of American society has been declining for the last 20 years or so, leaving retirement accounts empty, families forced to downsize, and only 41% of people with sufficient savings to cover a $1000 emergency – while at the same time the wealth of the comfortable classes continues to increase. So viewed from an economic lens, the picture looks more like this:
Elitism extends this divide beyond dollars and cents to the realm of social interactions. In order for the elite to feel justified in their wealth, they must also feel that they are deserving of it while the lower classes are not, or else that something other than economics is preventing the lower classes from rising. For quadrant D this is fairly straightforward: life is a struggle and they are the winners and therefore entitled to the spoils. For quadrant C this requires considerable mental gymnastics to maintain a cooperative mindset while supporting an economic system that generates oppression. These people tend to tell a story that quadrant A is oppressed by quadrant B (i.e. racism and white supremacy), and that if only that oppression could be resolved immigrants and people of color would be freed to rise into the comfortable classes. Meanwhile people in quadrant B are judged as bigoted racists and therefore deserving of their lower-class status.
It is of paramount importance to the comfortable classes that the struggling classes, which represent a solid majority, not be allowed or encouraged to find common cause. So it is that we have a fragile balance of halfhearted alliances and open enmities that maintains the balance of power and looks something like this:
It is worth examining these inter-group relationships in a bit more detail to understand this state of affairs.
Quadrant A, composed largely of people of color, is not given any great options. Quadrant C promises opportunities for advancement and protection against discrimination, but at the same time continues to charge the same unaffordable rent and to prop up the economic system that exploits their labor at unlivable wages. But an alliance with them is at this point preferable to the hatred flung their way by quadrant B.
Quadrant B, the white working class, includes a few dyed-in-the-wool bigots and racists, but is largely composed of good-hearted people who have a love of tradition, a nostalgia for the good old days when they earned reasonable wages, and a real but generally nonthreatening discomfort with people who are “different”. I know this because these were the people I grew up with, the people who I still call friends, the people who cared for my father when he was dying. Their antipathy toward A seems to me to be largely a result of actions by the elite quadrants C and D.
The framework of social justice is largely a product of universities, whose faculty and students are primarily in quadrant C. To avoid having to deal with the implications of their economic privilege, economic oppression is conveniently omitted from their framework. This angers the white working class, who are told that the suffering they are experiencing is either not real or their own fault, given that they do not have any “axes of oppression.”
Quadrant D, and especially Donald Trump, recognized the rejection of the white working class by quadrant C liberal elites and offered an alliance. The substance of this tenuous alliance is loosely based around shared competitive values (e.g. “America First”) and social conservatism, but any potential camaraderie between these groups is impeded by the fact that D was (and remains) most responsible for the immiseration of B, through – among other things – automation, offshoring of jobs, and destruction of unions. In order to forge this alliance, D had to offer B a convincing alternative scapegoat for their anger, and so was born the dangerous messaging that “illegal aliens are taking your jobs” and “black criminals on welfare are living high on the dole while you work hard for your money” and any number of other falsehoods.
Elite quadrants C and D disagree loudly on various issues – their voices are the ones we hear in the media – but they agree that preserving the economic status quo is a priority and also that growing populist dissent and discontent represents a threat to their power and wealth. Thus keeping a fire burning between A and B is very much in their shared interest.
The A-C and B-D alliances are beginning to weaken. For all that Donald Trump is a B-D bridge at the moment, he cannot ultimately improve the situation for B without making changes that will impact himself and his wealthy quadrant D cronies, and so the alliance seems doomed to failure. For all that the folks of C are doing their part to be allies to A during the current protests, when the discussion moves beyond racism and police brutality to affordable housing and jobs that pay a living wage the support will quietly evaporate.
At the same time, immigrants, people of color, and working class whites are toiling together daily in construction sites and factories, food processing plants and hotels, and increasingly recognizing their shared humanity and their common cause in restoring respect, dignity, and adequate pay to their essential contribution to society. So it is that I expect, within the next years to decades, to see a realignment of political alliances in the United States which will open the door to the possibility of real economic reform.
To get a sense of what that reform might look like, we first need to understand how our economy exploits some to benefit others, and apply the framework of social justice to attach moral significance to economic decisions. We’ll continue with Part II: The American Dream Casino.
As we emerge from our two-month government-mandated lockdowns, we are, in some ways, entering into a changed world – a world in which a nasty and potentially deadly infection continues to walk among us. Many of us lived through the introduction of HIV, a virus far worse than any of the lesser STIs, and now we must confront a PTI – “Proximity-Transmitted Infection” – and begin to navigate a new world of communication and consent.
We can wish that the government would enforce our personal preference on this matter – require everyone to stay home as much as possible and wear masks everywhere else, or force everyone to return to normal in spite of the new risk – but the reality is that COVID-19 etiquette is exiting the realm of public policy and entering the realm of personal choice, and so all of us must determine our own comfort levels and personal practices. Most of us are unprepared for this, and it is revealing differences among partners, friends, and families that were previously unexplored or unimportant. In building our lives together, we have sought compromise on monogamy, child-rearing, location, politics, and religion, and either reached agreement or ultimately parted ways. But nowhere in those conversations was the question of comfort level with a contagion. We didn’t ask each other: “If hugging a friend ever-so-slightly increases your chance of death and your chance of bringing death to your family, would you still do it? Would you be OK if I did it?” Those are the conversations of the now times, and perhaps we could learn from the well-developed language of sexual communication and consent.
Intimacy entails a level of risk – of pregnancy and STIs, and of emotional connections that may threaten existing relationships – and that risk can be mitigated – with condoms, birth control, and established boundaries. In effect, by adding a new level of social risk, COVID-19 has simply expanded our sphere of intimacy. Whereas before it was deemed essential to have consent before planting a kiss, and good practice to have consent before giving a hug, hugging has now become a mandatory-consent activity limited to one’s closest circles, and it is now good practice to have consent before coming within six feet or so without a mask on. An uninvited and unmasked intrusion into that six-foot radius is the new equivalent of an unwelcome embrace – a sort of low-level assault that makes us feel less respected and less safe in the world. We are learning a new lexicon of negotiation, of masks, bubbles, and pods.
When to wear
a face condom
Masks are like condoms for the face. I mean that not at all in a derogatory sense, but simply in that they serve an equivalent function: to prevent infectious particles (and yes, in this context, sperm are “infectious particles”) from leaving one sphere of intimacy and entering another. We all have the same parts on our faces, and our mouths and noses are equally infectious, so mask wearing is not gendered, but in most other ways the analogy holds. We can recommend that everyone practice “safer socializing” and wear masks whenever in public, but we also need to acknowledge that, like their sexual counterparts, masks have certain drawbacks. Breathing is a bit more difficult, for one, but on a personal level it creates a change in our self-expression and experience of the world. Scents and voices are muffled, and we feel a bit protected and withdrawn. A conversation with a close friend feels more intimate, more trusting, when conducted without masks.
We can argue
about where and how often we all ought to wear masks, but I think it is more
important at this point in time to define interpersonal etiquette than to enforce
broader societal standards. On this
level, the guidelines can be based on consent and respect and would look
something like this:
If you need to approach within 6-10 feet of someone who is wearing a mask, wear a mask.
If you are entering a place that provides essential services for vulnerable populations (e.g. grocery store, post office), wear a mask.
If you enter an environment where a majority of people are wearing masks, it is courteous to put one on.
Outside of these situations, please refrain from casting judgment on people based on their choice to wear a mask or not.
Along with our newfound expansion of intimacy comes a necessary negotiation of personal choices within each household or group of friends. Are we comfortable dining in restaurants? Meeting those outside the group without masks? Hugging people outside the group? Do we trust others in our group to be truthful? Just as those who are polyamorous or in open relationships must negotiate what intimacies are allowed and with whom, now we all must have those discussions. If anyone in my “bubble” or “pod” is engaging in behaviors that I am not personally comfortable with, then they are effectively making an unwanted choice for me. There are three possible solutions to this, all of them potentially fraught: 1) convince the other person to accept my preferred choices as their own, 2) accept the risk that comes with their choices as a “price of admission” for having them in my bubble, or 3) decide to live in separate bubbles.
This can lead to divisions and difficult choices. For those caring for a vulnerable elder at home, it can mean a physical separation, with one partner taking on the caregiver role and remaining socially distant from the other partner and children. For others, it can lead to choosing between forming a bubble with elders to the exclusion of friends and coworkers, or forming a more-porous, less risk-averse bubble with friends and coworkers while remaining socially distant from elders. The larger and more diverse the group, the less likely it is that all will be able to agree on acceptable risks, and the more likely that that some boundary of physical isolation will be necessary in the weeks and months ahead.
Where are we
It is almost impossible to predict the trajectory of COVID-19 at this point, and the parallel trajectory of our personal comfort levels. If the disease fades out in the months ahead, perhaps our spheres of intimacy will shrink back to their previous size, and these concerns will melt away. If it reaches outbreak status again, perhaps we will return to lockdown for a time, and in our enforced isolation be spared from confronting our differences. But more likely, it seems, the truth will be in the middle, and COVID-19 will be neither a relic of the past nor a breaking wave of mortality, but rather a persistent background risk – like car accidents or cancer – that we all must make peace with in our own ways, making our own choices and navigating this new landscape of expanded intimacy with compassion and open communication.
We’re going on two months since the pandemic upended our daily lives, and what began – for many – as a long unexpected-but-not-entirely-unwelcome staycation is transitioning to a new normal, a world in which we are back to our lives and our jobs but at a careful distance, a summer without festivals and fairs, sports teams playing in empty stadiums. A year or more, perhaps, without singing in choirs or feeling comfortable hugging our friends, without visiting our elders in care facilities. Within myself, I am feeling increasingly restless and reckless, pulled between a desire for freedom from fear and a sense of social obligation, to continue to slow the spread and “stay home, save lives” as our governor implores.
I find myself meditating on a passage from The Living, by Annie Dillard. The entire book, a work of historical fiction set in late 19th-century northern Washington State, is a reflection on what it means to be alive, to feel alive, to choose life over fear in a world defined by mortality. Within the context of frequent and unexpected death from accidents and disease, one of the main characters (Clare Fishburn) is under constant threat from an armed and mentally unstable man (Beal Obenchain) who wishes him dead. This leads to a climactic confrontation and a choice, a moment of clarity, a joyful and courageous surrender, as the character turns his back on the threat, accepts the possibility of death, and walks on (pp. 385-386):
When Obenchain stood and stopped him—his face thickened under his hat—and told him he was not going to kill him, he was not going to die, Clare looked out over the trestle and down to the water, where gulls flew without bending their wings. Obenchain was offering him a view he had to reject. The tide on the bay was slack at the flood. There was a plank walkway on the trestle by the rails. Clare moved onto the walkway, nodding and serious; he held his breath as if he were diving. The trestle quit the shore, and Clare stepped out over the bay and the strait in a socket of light. Sky pooled under his shoulders and arched beneath his feet. Time rolled back and bore him; he was porous as bones.
‘No,’ he said to Obenchain – but Obenchain was already far behind him on the bluff, his head swaying up like a blind man’s. No, indeed. The sky came carousing down around him. He saw the sun drenching the green westward islands and battering a path down the water. He saw the town before him to the south, where the trestle lighted down. Then far on the Nooksack plain to the east, he saw a man walking. The distant figure was turning pea rows under in perfect silence. He was dressed in horse’s harness and he pulled the plow. His feet trod his figure’s long blue shadow, and the plow cut its long blue shadow in the ground. The man turned back as if to look along the furrow, to check its straightness. Clare saw again, on the plain farther north, another man; this one walked behind a horse and turned the green ground under. Then before him on the trestle over the water he saw the earth itself walking, the earth walking darkly as it always walks in every season: it was plowing the men under, and the horses, and the plows.
The earth was plowing the men under, and the horses under, and the plows. No wonder you are cold, he said to the broken earth, he said to the lighted water: you kicked your people off. No generation sees it happen, and the damp new fields grow up forgetting. He would return home and see his cedar shingles off on the train. Clare was burrowing in light upstream. All the living were breasting into the crest of the present together. All men and women and children spread in a long line, holding aloft a ribbon or banner; they ran up a field as wide as earth, opening time like a path in the grass, and he was borne along with them. No, he said, peeling the light back, walking in the sky toward home; no.
I love that passage because it combines remarkably evocative imagery of enduring natural beauty with the transience of human life, and Clare explicitly accepts the world as it is, complete with the ever-present possibility and ultimate inevitability of death, and chooses to ride the cresting wave of the present. And he does so without reference to a particular God or vision of the afterlife – which would limit relevance to those with similar beliefs – but simply a joyful commitment to this mysterious and miraculous experience of life that we all share.
When I think ahead to a year without gatherings, without contra dances and potlucks, without concerts, a year of fearing closeness rather than embracing it, a year of religiously washing our hands, wearing masks, keeping our distance from our parents and grandparents, I think of a song that my father wrote, to the melody of Tom Paxton’s The Last Thing On My Mind:
In the morning the sun so gloriously greets the day Brings the light, ends the night And in the streets the people go the same old way Without sight, without light
And how many days just pass us by When we never really live and we never really die And we never really laugh and we never really cry And we never really know the reasons why
In the evening all the colors gather In the sky, the western sky Yet in the streets the people all would rather Just get by, just get by
And how many days just pass us by When we never really live and we never really die And we never really laugh and we never really cry And we never really know the reasons why
~Ed Stone, sometime around 1980
In this case we know the reason why, and we are accepting a lesser life in the hope that doing so will lead to lesser death. But perhaps that is always the reason why. Perhaps we don’t really live and really laugh because our fear stops us short, tells us stories that keep us small, keeps us confined to the past and future, the virtual and the distant, while neglecting the miracle of the here and now.
The latest guidance says that we won’t be singing together again, dancing together, crowding into stadiums again, until we have effective treatment or a vaccine. That wording concerns me, precisely because it is conditional and not at all time-bound. We might have a vaccine next year, or we might have one that is 40% effective like for the flu, or we might not ever have an effective vaccine at all, like for HIV. It’s not like waiting until Christmas. It’s more like staying in an unpleasant living situation because your scary roommate tells you they are probably moving out sometime in the next few years, and it feels safer and easier to stay put.
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has so far resulted in 85,000 deaths and trillions of dollars’ worth of missing paychecks. The question of reopening is usually portrayed as lives lost versus economic suffering, but that equation is missing so much of human experience that cannot be readily quantified. What is the value of dying in the company of family and friends, versus dying alone in a sterile institution? What is the value of spending nights and weekends with parents and grandparents? What is the value of cancelled dances and missed glances? What is the value of making music together in a choir, of gathering in a park for a summer concert, or relaxing in the presence of joyful humans at the Oregon Country Fair or Folklife or a stadium crowd? What is the cost of isolation – not just in terms of clinical depression and suicide but in quality of life? How much time spent less than fully alive is worth how much actual death?
I should note that I supported the lockdowns, imposed at a time when we were facing so many unknown unknowns, when it seemed like the alternative could be millions of deaths in a few weeks, or that we might discover a miracle treatment. The lockdowns also provided a much needed reset of the rat-race economy, a chance to stop for a moment, to take time to think, to consider our approach to this new death-bringer in our midst rather than being dragged thoughtlessly forward to meet it. But I also cautioned, in my first essay on COVID-19, that we might well be faced with a difficult choice if eradication proved impossible. Two months have passed since then, and the time for that choice has now arrived.
It is time, I believe, to consider the possibility of surrender. Not an unconditional surrender, with COVID-19 patients overwhelming our hospitals, but an acceptance that in order to return to our lives and our loves, we must accept a higher chance of death than would be strictly necessary. A choice like Clare Fishburn, to say “I reject the idea that I will not die,” and to thereby choose to live.
In order to morally make such a choice, we must address two serious ethical dilemmas. The first is that any choice that increases one’s chance of death is deeply personal, and should ideally never be coerced. At the moment we have waiters and hairdressers who are afraid to return to work, yet who face the loss of unemployment payments when their industries reopen. We have elders with conditions that render COVID-19 extremely life-threatening, who wish to be able to choose continued safety in isolation even as life resumes. The second is that our society is built upon structural inequalities, which are showing up as disproportionate infection and death rates among African Americans, immigrant communities, and low-income families employed in essential trades. This has become a political division, as a few on the right posit that death is OK so long as it happens to those people, while many on the left counter that the only reasonable approach is to continue the lockdown indefinitely and minimize death at all costs.
We will not be able to address these dilemmas completely, but we could certainly do better. We should offer continued unemployment to anyone who is uncomfortable returning to work, along with the option of paid education for retraining in lower-risk careers. We should ensure that we have delivery systems in place to provide low-contact essentials to those who choose self-isolation. We should create a National Essential Service Corps, with voluntary enlistment and good pay and benefits similar to the military. This force should be deployed to keep essential services open – including meatpacking and public transportation – while allowing at-risk and fearful workers in those areas to take extended paid vacations until local outbreaks subside. Such a service would also expose a wide array of people to these “dirty” and underappreciated jobs, and likely generate a public outcry to improve pay and working conditions.
If we can
protect the most vulnerable and address demographic inequality, then perhaps we
can follow in the footsteps of Sweden, which never imposed a lockdown on their
population. They have been criticized
for having a higher death rate than neighboring countries, but neither has it
been catastrophic, and in fact it has remained lower than locked-down Spain and
Italy. Perhaps our control is not even
as effective as we believe it to be.
Regardless, the novelty of COVID-19 has worn off, and we understand it
far better than we did a few months ago.
Now we must simply choose, each for ourselves and together as a
society: will we constrain our lives
indefinitely, in the hope that we can claim dominion over this virus, or will
we follow in the footsteps of Clare Fishburn, accept the possibility of death,
and set off courageously across the trestle toward home?