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.
He observed a startling transformation in the attitudes of students he taught.
And he bemoaned the lack of political mobilization.
Note the phrase "fragmented individualism of our concerns."
Daniel T. Rodgers provided similar conclusions about changes in society in his book Age of Fracture.
Rodgers provides a different context and uses different terms, but he is describing the same phenomenon as Judt.
Rodgers also provides this insight:
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.
Rosanvallon recognizes a fundamental change in society.
Rosanvallon describes this change in terms that are reminiscent of both Judt and Rodgers.
"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.
To formulate a path to a fair society one must recognize, as Rosanvallon concludes:
Does Rosanvallon arrive at a means to counter the growth of inequality? Starr provides this summary statement.
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!