As we engage our “nineteenth nervous breakdown,” courtesy of Officer Chauvin’s casual murder of George Floyd, I begin to think that somebody or something is trying to tell us something. As a result of deep-seated racial prejudice, a climate crisis, a pandemic, an economy in ruins, democracy in mortal danger, and general religious, ethnic, and gender intolerance, we have a society teetering on collapse. Obviously, we can say that we are getting some things wrong, but are they a bunch of different things or can we narrow it down to a thing or two?
I’d like to speculate that the common thread in all of these is inequality. As we consider the implications of this, I think we begin to see how deeply rooted it is in all the institutions on which our society is based, and how radically we are going to have to change in order to address it.
In the dawn of civilization, when we first began to aspire to luxury and leisure, the biggest obstacle was not lack of abundance, because that was always there. Food needed to be grown, harvested and prepared. A big comfortable house needed to be built and maintained. Clearly, in order to have our cake and eat it too, we needed somebody to help. But why would somebody that wanted the same things you want spend their time getting these things for you?
To bend them to your will, you had to exert control over them either by threat of force or persuasion. We invented war, racial and ethnic superiority, politics, pursuit of wealth, and religion. The conquered became slaves as did people of different races or ethnicities. Religion was used effectively to garner service from supplicants without having to offer anything of substance in exchange, and, as experience has shown, we can rationalize anything in the name of religion. With these constructs, we invented hierarchy: kings over all, master over slave, men over women, man over nature, white over black, rich over poor, believers over heathens, and so on. The invention of private property insured that nobody could easily take your advantage away. This is what we now call wealth, which in my mind implies a poorer class that has to work for you. Technology has provided machines to replace human or animal servants, but we have found the institutions of wealth and hierarchy, and the resulting inequality, to be advantageous to the few that manage to attain the top rungs.
That advantage came into its own with the concept of rent, by which an owner could lend out their wealth to another and earn more wealth without actually having to do any work at all. Henry George wrote a book 135 years ago decrying the injustice of rent, and the fact that you probably never heard of him is telling. When all real estate is mostly privately owned and little left in common, and half or more of the people can’t afford to rent much less buy that housing or real estate, then we find ourselves in a real bind. Somehow, we need to create a new economy where everybody is able to access shelter on their own. Community Land Trusts can provide one avenue to home ownership while the community still controls the land and keeps a property off the commodity market. It never fails to gall me that we actually celebrate an increase in property values.
A word about government or wealthy foundations intervening to make necessities available to poorer people. Charity is a demeaning and tenuous option. Everybody should be able to access what they need based on the work that they contribute to society. With the pandemic, we now know that a garbage man is just as worthy of adequate compensation as a stockbroker, perhaps more so. We equate wealth, whiteness, and maleness with higher status and place little value on manual “menial” jobs, genders, and races formerly associated with slaves or servants, and we compensate them all accordingly. Maybe compensation would be better handled by paying the most for the jobs that are the least popular. But if one is unable to contribute then charity is called for, but not as a result of an intrusive and insulting evaluation of one’s private life. Hierarchy, status, and class have to be removed from our social lexicon. This is not something we can achieve without changing the entire structure of our culture. That is a sample of the magnitude of change we need to create.
That not only means that the wealthy must be taxed more heavily but that the earning power that they now enjoy must also be spread more evenly across the population. I’m talking about democratizing private enterprise, giving labor a stake in both the ownership and management of business, eliminating any rift in interests. Again, not a small change.
We need nothing less than the banishment of wealth and power when it is not democratically acquired. The relentless pursuit of profit and power for its own sake and the inequality it fosters is fundamentally responsible for the deterioration of our world: the climate, war, pestilence, and racial and economic injustice.