Monday, June 2, 2014

An Individualist Age: Finding a Different Path to a Fair Society

For one who is generally in agreement with their principles and goals, it is often disappointing to read articles generated by left-leaning publications. There seems a scent of age—or even decay—about them. Most look nostalgically back at a past when unions were strong and taxes were much more progressive. The "Golden Era" occurred in the postwar years when the "great convergence" occurred, as opposed to the "great divergence" in income inequality that we face now. Many proposals to address this growing inequality emerge, but few resonate with the majority of the population. It seems that old remedies are not stirring new hearts.

Most liberals were heartened by the publication in this country of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In it he documents the history of economic inequality and predicts a dire future. Piketty’s work provides a justification for action being taken to address the problem of inequality.

Also included in his economic history is a warning. He makes quite clear the notion that the period from the beginning of World War I to about 1970 was an anomalous time in economic history. Two world wars and the Great Depression created circumstances and shared experiences that hopefully will never be replicated. Yet, our beliefs about economics, politics, and society emerged from that unique period. If they seem less valid now, could it be that we are, as a society, evolving into different creatures with new concerns and mindsets that are not receptive to old rallying cries?

Just before he died, Tony Judt published the short book Ill Fares the Land. He recognized the fact that a transition had occurred in society.

"Much of what appears ‘natural’ today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric that accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth."

He observed a startling transformation in the attitudes of students he taught.

"And in the classroom, the enthusiasm of an earlier generation for radical politics has given way to blank mystification. In 1971 almost everyone was, or wanted to be thought, some sort of a ‘Marxist". By the year 2000, few undergraduates had any idea what that even meant, much less why that was once so appealing.’

And he bemoaned the lack of political mobilization.

"We no longer have political movements. While thousands of us may come together for a rally or a march, we are bound together on such occasions by a single shared interest. Any effort to convert such interests into collective goals is usually undermined by the fragmented individualism of our concerns. Laudable goals—fighting climate change, opposing war, advocating public healthcare or penalizing bankers—are united by nothing more than the expression of emotion. In our political, as in our economic lives, we have become consumers: choosing from a broad gamut of competing objectives, we find it hard to imagine ways or reasons to combine these into a coherent whole. We must do better than this."

Note the phrase "fragmented individualism of our concerns."

Daniel T. Rodgers provided similar conclusions about changes in society in his book Age of Fracture.

"….in the last quarter of the [twentieth] century, through more and more domains of social thought and argument, the terms that had dominated post-World War II intellectual life began to fracture. One heard less about society, history, and power and more about individuals, contingency, and choice. The importance of economic institutions gave way to notions of flexible and instantly acting markets. History was said to accelerate into a multitude of almost instantaneously accessible possibilities. Identities became fluid and elective. Ideas of power thinned out and receded. In politics and institutional fact and in social imagination, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s had been the era of consolidation. In the last quarter of the century, the dominant tendency of the age was toward disaggregation."

Rodgers provides a different context and uses different terms, but he is describing the same phenomenon as Judt.

Rodgers also provides this insight:

"In contrast to mid-nineteenth-century notions of the self as a free-standing, autonomous production of its own will and ambition, twentieth-century social thinkers had encircled the self with wider and wider rings of relations, structures, contexts, and institutions."

Given that the society that emerged in the post-war years was determined by the traumas of the first half of the century, could it be that views of individuals on their role in society are gradually reverting to a longer-term mean that was comfortable with a looser coupling to others and to the institutions of society?

The time when the legislation establishing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was being argued was rather disturbing for liberals with a traditional communitarian view of society. The goal of the legislation was to provide healthcare to the many millions who did not then have access to healthcare insurance. However, when the traditional argument was made in terms of helping those in need of help, it generated little support from the general population. The Obama administration subsequently had to resort to tactics that emphasized the notion that all people would benefit from the legislation.

Was the experience with Obamacare an indication that we have entered an era where the idea of social justice is no longer operative, or does it simply mean that individuals have begun to see their interaction with society as more tenuous, and must be approached in a different manner if their support is to be gained?

This latter question is the topic of an article by Paul Starr in the New York Review of Books: A Different Road to a Fair Society. Starr reviews a book by Pierre Rosanvallon The Society of Equals. The discussion focuses not on healthcare, but on income inequality.

Starr points out that inequality is known, recognized, and discussed, but little action toward correcting it is imminent.

"But if people are angry about so much wealth going to so few, they are keeping quiet about it nearly everywhere."

Rosanvallon recognizes a fundamental change in society.

"This passive consent to inequality is the point of departure for the French historian and political theorist Pierre Rosanvallon in his new book, The Society of Equals. As Rosanvallon writes, there is ‘a generalized sense that inequalities have grown "too large" or even become "scandalous,"’ but that sense ‘coexists with tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and with silent resistance to any practical steps to correct them.’ The crisis of equality therefore involves more than widening economic disparities: ‘it reflects the collapse of a whole set of old ideas of justice and injustice’ and ‘must be grasped as a total social fact’."

Rosanvallon describes this change in terms that are reminiscent of both Judt and Rodgers.

"With the ebbing of revolutionary movements and the collapse of communism, ‘the fears that had once driven reform dissipated.’ As the world wars receded into the past, ‘memory of the shared ordeals’ faded as well."

"Rosanvallon also points to the ‘hollowing out’ of institutions of solidarity and changes in economic life and popular thought that emphasize individual competence and adaptability. The story that Rosanvallon tells here is that as new forms of knowledge and economic relations have emerged, people have come to think of their situation in less collective ways."

Rosanvallon wishes to find a way to address people possessing this more individualistic view and convince them of the importance of traditional views of social justice.

"Rosanvallon would like his book to provide a comprehensive understanding that would help overcome the general sense of resignation and revive equality as a moral ideal and political project."

To formulate a path to a fair society one must recognize, as Rosanvallon concludes:

"’We live today in an individualist age and must reformulate things accordingly,’ he writes in his new book."

Does Rosanvallon arrive at a means to counter the growth of inequality? Starr provides this summary statement.

"Does he solve the contemporary puzzles about inequality? I don’t think so. But he analyzes them in so illuminating a way that anyone interested in understanding and reversing the surge in inequality should read his work."

While Rosanvallon cannot tell us that the task ahead is simple, he does tell us that history is on the side of fairness. Excessive inequality is unstable and leads to revolution or reform.

Liberals take note. Reformulate your rhetoric and get back to work!

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