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February 24, 2011 / dictateursanguinaire

Egalitarianism or Empowerment?

I/t/o defining the left, egalitarianism is often brought up as one of the major ends tying all the variant strands of thought under that category together. I think one thing that gets muddled a lot is the perception that “lefties” (using “lefties” in place of “liberals” because I find it useful to distinguish leftism from liberalism, and there will likely be future posts about the clash between these two ideologies, I think, especially as conservatism is basically moribund and the future will probably be largely liberal in the literal [classical liberal] sense, with opposition coming from the left which may absorb elements of conservatism) are committed to equality of, say, outcome and opportunity over, say, empowerment, which is not always true. As far as social democratic states, e.g. Sweden, there is a fair amount of equality of opportunity (e.g. programs for children, high rates of education, etc.) and also equality of outcome (e.g. pretty good social insurance.) However, among the more anarchist-tinged left, there’s actually a commitment to less equality of outcome and more towards empowerment. I think the idea is that empowerment will generally lead to equality of outcome anyways, but that the bottom line is autonomy and localized decision making.

This distinction is interesting given the recent “liberaltarian” trend in politics. This is actually a fairly old ideology, that has roots in Smith (who was by no means a free market purist) and (later) Mill and is (somewhat) similar to Germany’s “ordoliberalism” but it goes something like this: gov’t interference in the economy, or, in general, any sort of ‘inefficiency’ in the economy (e.g. unions, regulations) should be eliminated. This will create growth but will also create inequality, which can be remedied with social service, which will be paid for via high tax revenues from the growth from a free-market economy.

This is a more appealing ideology than straight libertarianism, and it has some serious weight in politics (most of the Democratic party subscribes to this, and most people who make over a certain amount a year and identify as “liberal” usually mean believe something like this) but I think there are several things wrong with it.

First, not all regulation is aimed at wealth redistribution – some of it is aimed at preventing externalities. As an example, a system like this would have given us more equality of income but would not have prevented the Gulf Coast oil spill or the financial crash – to prove that, let me point out that this ideology is in fact similar to what most Democratic presidents since Carter have ultimately ended up pursuing (give concessions to social welfare but deregulate finance and banks) anyways, and that hasn’t worked out too well (it hasn’t even reduced income inequality Growth, which was supposedly the concession to the left for deregulating.)  

Second, does it really work? After all, this ideology has been tried in most of the developing world already. The sell is usually the same: “unions and minimum wage regulations and the like might give you higher wages but they prevent growth which ultimately trickles down to you” and this has simply not materialized (look at economic “miracles” like Chile/Brazil – the high post-ISI growth rates in some cases occurred because the [supposedly laissez-faire minded] governments made wage hikes illegal, i.e. by definition the wealth was prevented from trickling down.) There’s considerable evidence to support the idea that getting rid of “impediments to growth” doesn’t really result in a more fair society, just one with a higher GDP – for a recent exposition of this, check out Kevin Drum\’s recent MoJo article – worth pointing out that he is center-left at best (i.e. not a “Marxist nut.”)

Third, I think it creates power differentials that are objectional and also counteract the effects of income redistribution – there are serious downsides to this politically in a democracy. Even if wealth did trickle down, how do you e.g. get rid of unions? The right to associate is literally the first right on the American Bill of Rights – is a neoliberal policy regime so perfect in outcome that it justifies, say, taking away that right?

I think the power difference is actually a big part of the story of why most wealthy people (and I don’t mean this necessarily as a criticism – it just makes sense)  tend to prefer modest redistribution with less grassroots organizing and things like unions or demonstrations. Of course, theoretically, well-off laissez-faire types should love unions – they represent a way for the poor to get in on the action without the “coercion” of “big gov’t” stepping in. It’s totally negotiation based between private citizens (well, minus the NLRB.) And further, when was the last time you heard a libertarian complain about the US Chamber of Commerce (basically a business union)?

What the extremely anti-union sentiment pervading both aisles of elite thought mostly comes down to, then, is simple class and power politics: it’s only a moderate dip in our checkbooks if we fund social insurance, and the poor people will put a sock in it and keep the economy rolling with their food stamps but mobilized labor has a propensity to do stuff like this*. Additionally, if the people at the bottom make too little money, there won’t be much of a domestic market (though that’s become less of a problem recently.) In a sense, it’s basic Keynesianism – and remember, Keynes was, like FDR, saving capitalism via bone-throwing (which isn’t necessarily bad but it’s important to consider if we’re going to allow anything further left than Keynes [who voted Liberal not Labour] in our discourse.) The key thing about income redistribution by the gov’t is that it’s actually way more reformist/moderate than a union. It maintains power in elite hands. You can throw the peons a bone in the way of Medicaid so that they won’t riot in the streets without it costing too much. For the top one percent, it’s preferable politically and socially to the total laissez-faire game (which tends to produce things like these: Egypt and the IMF, Argentina and Neoliberalism, Greek Austerity, although I think backtracking free-marketeer Jeff Sachs is too optimistic when he says that America is capable of these sorts of demonstrations) if not economically but also to union-led politics, who (just like CEOs and bankers) are going to fight tooth and nail if given the chance instead of, in a reformist Keynesian state which limits union activities, maybe showing up to the ballot box once every few years. To put it concretely, think about Wall St. Democrats like Jamie Dimon. People like him tend to be smart, and being smart they tend to be acutely aware of history. Without getting too cynical, the basic fact is that people like him make an astonishing amount of money and most other people do not. Whether they’re justified or not, revolutions have almost always followed in situations like this. For someone like Dimon, it’s a pretty easy tradeoff – he pays a small tax (literally and figuratively) in return for insulation from true populist movements. Hell, the capital gains (which is how many people on Wall St. make the majority of their income) tax rate was only 15% (note: article is by noted conservative Ben Stein) until recently, which is, as the article notes, a lower rate than most people who pay federal income tax at all pay.

In fact, the liberaltarian trend makes perfect sense when viewed as a reform movement in the tradition of FDR or the Bull Moose types from the early 20th – prescient enough to see that if shit gets bad enough, people will get militant and give their ear to radicals (hello, imprisoned socialist Eugene Debs still getting more votes than Nader ever has) but more interested in quashing that militancy vs. addressing grievances. I’m not arguing for or against labor militancy or massive populist movements, but the fact remains: they have happened in the past and they tend to happen in circumstances like the ones we’ve found ourselves in the last few years.

There’s also (from an anarchist perspective) an interesting totalitarian aspect to this policy. It promises more equality but in a very carrot-and-stick fashion: you can have social insurance, but you have to work, and you probably have to work for someone. With increasingly monopolized (both economically and genetically: Mutant Alfalfa!!!) agriculture and the end of any sort of trade or zoning restrictions and the everpresent corporate welfare (goodbye small business, hello Wal-Mart), there is a declining real possibility of growing one’s own food or even the libertarian dream of a nation of entrepreneurs. You either have the capital to innovate technologically or you try and fail to sell some shit that a big box store can make for less than a quarter of what it costs you. You might have social insurance, but you no longer own your own business (dystopian, sure, but we’re slowly moving in that direction to be sure.) Personally, I’m more of a Jeffersonian when it comes to these things – between a) an straight-up size cap/heavy regulation on corporations and no social insurance or small business regulations whatsoever or b) no any-size business regulation whatsoever and modest social insurance, I think I’d have to go with option A. I’m fundamentally a small-gov’t lefty in this sense – I’d rather have solidarity and informal cooperation with less gov’t than to ensure insurance (groooooannnnn) but also take away autonomy. This is in effect a microcosm for the tradeoff of modernity – you can have all the benefits of technology but a pretty big stick looms behind that. I’ve been digging a lot of records recently made by bands who are members of the Tuareg peoples tribes in Western Africa, and they’re a great example of an ethnic group that has simply refused to fully integrate with the neoliberal-leaning gov’ts that have tried to enclose their lands (Colonel Gaddafi and co., in the case of the Libyan Tuaregs) – a pretty clear rejection of the “development” paradigm in favor of a “less advanced” system of (relatively egalitarian) pastoral nomadism. I’m not proposing anarcho-primitivism, but it’s worth noting the modernity is a tradeoff, though how much a tradeoff it is obviously varies by the person. But the point is, the tradeoff intensifies over time – our culture, economy and government simply trend towards centralized control with less community focus. How many people voted in a local election, cooked their own meal with local or self produced food or attended a community event recently? How many of your parents or siblings did?

sea change…

Third, all of this assumes that you basically accept neoclassical economics on its face (i.e. that the only problem with neoclassical economics is that the outcomes it predicts are socially undesirable instead of the real problem [as i think] being that it is often bad at even predicting outcomes and is based on fallacies and gross simplifications.) For more on that, check out any of the UMKC (what the fuck up KC, always making me proud) school affiliates’ websites – my favorite is M. Hudson: Neoliberalism and the Counter-Enlightenment and here’s a general blog: UMKC School; Jamie Galbraith’s work (summarized in part here: Naked Capitalism\’s taked on Modern Monetary Theory); a very literate/non-reactionary anarchist critique that also points the way to some fairly mainstream neoclassical critics, mostly Post Keynesians: What is wrong with economics?;  post-autistic economics: Be careful who you use this title around. Basically, the idea being that even if we should hand the economic controls over to the libertarian wunderkinds to maximize growth, this still leaves an enormous amount of faith in a repeatedly and successfully contended theory.

*this was the one video I linked to that I hadn’t seen prior to posting but it’s pretty telling: the worker in the film explains that it took the threat of thousands of gallons of fuel exploding to convince them to leave the factory…in other words, this is the sort of militancy that you just don’t see in the U.S. anymore but that people at the top are (understandably) not wanting to see return.


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