The Problem of “Inequality”
By: Asher Wycoff
The lead-up to and aftermath of the Great Recession spawned a great deal of research on economic inequality. Some of this work (contributions by Bartels, Wilkinson and Pickett, Alesina and Glaeser) is excellent and well worth reading. Among even the best contributions to the discourse, however, the same dull, liberal conclusion prevails: the solution to rising inequality is a set of more effective redistributive measures. Such a solution draws a slew of predictably derisive comments from cranky leftists like me, who consider social democratic reforms inadequate. Capitalism with a human face, we diligently repeat, is still capitalism.
The discussion around inequality was galvanized recently by Piketty’s apparent blockbuster Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I haven’t read Piketty’s book, and my contention is not so much with any of Piketty’s arguments as it is with the broader political discussion surrounding them. From what I understand, Piketty essentially proffers the same grim diagnosis that fringe left-wingers like myself accepted long ago: Kuznets was wrong; the post-war decline in inequality was the exception, not the rule; and capitalism inexorably produces enormous gaps in wealth. In spite of these dire conclusions, Piketty joins the aforementioned chorus of welfare liberal voices, saying that all we need is a larger welfare state and a more progressive tax code. Once again, the solution to corrosive inequality is a more advanced economy of redistribution.
This is the liberal left’s penicillin––a once-effective regimen, now highly overprescribed and rapidly losing efficacy. The bourgeoisie has developed a strong resistance to reformist checks on its power, as it consistently finds new and creative ways to circumvent taxes, labor laws, and wage floors. In the face of this growing resistance, welfare liberals keep suggesting the same treatment that worked in the ’40s and ’50s (and marveling when it doesn’t take effect). The stymied radical has to ask, why do we keep coming back to this tired prescription? Is it so inconceivable to look beyond capitalism that we must continually attempt to tack shoddy guardrails onto it?
The problem, I think, lies in the framing of the question: How can we address inequality?The assumption is that the primary (if not sole) problem of the capitalist system is the disparity in wealth that results from it. Starting from this presupposition, the theorist can only go so far, and in response to the question of inequality, we wind up getting the same two answers repeatedly. From the left, we get the same plodding solution of more redistribution. “All it takes is better legislation and a little more bureaucracy to domesticate feral capitalism!” From the right, we get the same insufferable complaint that inequality is inevitable, regardless of the economic system, and so the reasonable course of action is to do nothing. “All technologically developed societies have some inequality! What, should we go back to hunting and gathering?”
Of course, it makes little sense to propose that everyone get paid exactly the same. The thing is, though, no anti-capitalist I have ever met has wanted everyone to get paid the same. Nearly every anti-capitalist I have ever met, though, has wanted to break down the system of wage labor, has wanted to change the fundamental structure of the state (often to the end of abolishing the state entirely), and has wanted to radically alter virtually all systems of distribution and compensation. The problem of the discourse around inequality is that it takes the wage system for granted. It assumes the incontestability of the capitalist mode of production. Inequality, effectively, becomes the only ground on which capitalism can be challenged.
Thorough critiques of capitalism do not restrict themselves to inequality. Capitalism, at its core, is incapable of granting a sustained political voice to the working class. No matter how much redistributive window dressing you put up, the bourgeoisie will, in time, take it down. In addressing inequality alone, the left treats the symptom and not the disease. The goal of socialism is not just the elimination of inequality; it is the radical redistribution of power. The current need is for more high-profile left-wing studies and theories which acknowledge this.