Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Paradigms of Injustice: Bureaucrats, Bigwigs, Bigots and the Lessons of Google Books

In Class and Social Stratification, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 26, 2013 at 3:17 pm

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I’ve noticed that there is something tricky about my eclipse of equality thesis. It is tricky to explain to my conservative friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-government imagery, ideas and symbols. It is tricky to explain to my liberal friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-supremacist imagery, ideas, and symbols.

Both of these sets of colleagues might be right, but I hope that both are, in fact, wrong. What I think the eclipse of equality lens allows to begin to see is how a coherent plan for a just society requires us to balance our concern with the full spectrum of abusive powers that are arrayed against us and to plan institutions that have the balancing power to make those forces more useful than (ab)useful. The insight is that while planning authorities, wealthy entrepreneurs and ethical codifiers are all good things in one sense—they provide us with order, growth and morality respectively—they also invariably overreach, becoming villainous bureaucrats, bigwigs and bigots in the narratives that constitute our perspective on the just society.  My conservative friends fear the bureaucrat. My liberal friends fear the bigot. Both of them fear the vilification of the bigwig, which they associate with either Marxist Socialism on the conservative and reactionary populism on the liberal side. This helps to lock us into a pattern that makes it very difficult to articulate compelling popular ideas that challenge the concentration of economic power in precipitously few hands.

For the moment, I will postpone the argument about the objective data of class polarization and focus instead on how our value system and narrative ecology has evolved in this period of spiraling inequality. One has to be very careful in making attributions of causal direction when analyzing time series, or historical, data of the kind I will present here, but I think the drift in certain word choices in books printed in American English as represented in Google books might give us a supporting body of data to complement the deeply qualitative case I make in Eclipse about what is going on and why.

Consider Figure 1. You see here the result of a Google search using the incredibly seductive NGRAM Viewer application. I am deeply suspicious of many uses of this application for natural language or quantitative content analysis; in my own experience with it, the older dates are riddled with errors and there are odd patterns of what Google considered to be books. I am not clear about exactly what qualifies as a book for Google, but Life magazine seems to make the cut, as does a bound set of journals and other unorthodox sources. Taking these caveats in mind, Google books NGRAM is a mind-blowing application for purposes of mapping culture as the authors well advertised and it may help to put my arguments in context.

This screen shot of the Google books NGRAM shows the pattern in the phrases “economic equality,” “racial diversity,” and “economic freedom.” The Y-axis indicates the percent of all two-word phrases that the target phrase comprises, while the X-axis indicates the year of publication. These three phrases chosen are obviously not among the most used by American authors in this period, but they are ones that we often use to denote commitments to the values proposed in opposition to the villainous figures of the bureaucrat, bigwig and the bigot, respectively.

In the figure, we see three trend lines beginning in 1870 and ending in 2008. The first and top line for most of the series is for the phrase “economic freedom.” It begins to rise in the 1880s and then soars to dominate the three items by the mid-1940s. Immediately after the war, it begins a steady descent, only to halt around 1976 (without smoothing we see the nadir is actually 1978) in terms of its relative share of phrases with a slight increase into the twenty-first century.

The phrase “economic equality” traces a similar path of ascent from the 1880s, surges and falls in the populist 1890s, and then rises with economic freedom into WWII with a flatter slope. It peaks in wartime as does “economic freedom,” but after the war, it both does not descend so far and also comes back to roughly equal prominence in the early 1970s, when the phrase is more common, for a time, than its anti-bureaucratic cousin.

It is interesting to speculate on the meaning of the use of the phrases in different periods as well. In Figure 2, I have presented title pictures from two sample books on each theme. The first is Drucker’s The Future of Industrial Man of 1942, a wartime call to protect our liberal way of life against its authoritarian rivals in Europe and Man and Society in Calamity of 1943 by the seminal social stratification researcher Pitirim Sorokin. Both are highly universalistic and dramatic in their formulation and stress the centrality of the enlightenment and the protection of western values against totalitarian depredations.

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After the 1970s things change. The phrase “economic equality” becomes a much less common phrase in American Google books while “economic freedom” does not. If we are to trust the representativeness of the search mechanism of Google books, so too does the flavor of the books change in which these phrases appear. I’ve chosen for Figure 3 two books, sorted high for relevance that contain the key phrase. The first is from 1978, the bottom year for “economic freedom” and the other from 1974, the year before “economic equality” begins its downturn.

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The phrase is highlighted in a book by Murray Rothbard, one of the great popularizers of the new libertarian philosophy that has fired the Ron Paul phenomenon. In contrast, the second book is by an author named Letty M. Russell, a prominent feminist theologian. Her book might be thought of as an early draft from the spring of what we now call intersectionality, which stresses the necessary dependencies and connections between economic, social and cultural phenomenon. The Amazon description of Rusell’s book is marks the clear contrast of this story of egalitarianism as a contrast to one that was characteristic of a figure like Jimmy Hoffa; “Today, women are joining other oppressed groups in a search for liberation. Human Liberation in a Feminist Perspective–A Theology is an attempt to wrestle with this challenge by making a contribution to the Christian understanding of human liberation from the feminist perspective.”

These speculations on the relative salience and contextual usage of the terms “economic freedom” and “economic equality” is suggestive, but the big story that illustrates the phenomenon I will call transvaluation or the eclipse of equality concerns the extraordinary rise of the phrase “racial diversity”. The phrase only makes its marquee debut with the Bakke case in 1978, but it is surprisingly common in earlier books in the Google sample as well. One intriguing early use is from a bound set of British journals from 1902 named The Twentieth Century, A Monthly Review in a passage that foreshadows the uncomfortable and unnecessary competition between progressive values of our own time.

“In the mixture of nationalities forming the working population has lain the comparative protection of Capital from organized attack. The racial diversity still exists, it is true, and racial diversity does not make for successful Trade Unionism. But year by year the proportion of native-born American Labour necessarily increases, and in many industries it is becoming predominant.”

Racial diversity in this century old formulation probably had more to do with the gaps between a Swede and a German than a black and a white person, but by century’s end, the phrase means what we think it would.

Figure 4 displays two books picked for high relevance from the later period. The first is a collection of essays from 1998 by Eugene Y. Lowe, Jr., a successful university administrator at Northwestern University. The second is a book called Lessons in Integration: Realizing the Promise of Racial Diversity in American Schools from 2007 also drawn from American schools, but this time with a focus on a return of the bad old days of segregation (full disclosure, one of the authors, Gary Orfield, is an editor of a piece on high school dropout that I published a few years prior to this example). We see in both of these volumes a clear ethic of racial inclusion, tolerance of those on the margin and celebration of otherness that should feel very familiar to any contemporary observer of the political scene. These are the values on the grand theme of tolerance, inclusion and diversity that take supremacist cultures as their target of vilification.

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Let me end with a hint of what is at stake in this period of transvaluation, in which an increasing number of abusive situations are framed in terms of the ethic of anti-bigotry rather than in terms of the ethic of anti-bigwigs.  The Amazon book description for the Lessons in Integration book closes with:

“In a society with more than 40 percent nonwhite students and thousands of suburban communities facing racial change, it is critical to learn the lessons of experience and research regarding the effective operation of racially diverse and inclusive schools. Lessons in Integration will make a significant contribution to knowledge about how to make integration work, and as such, it will have a positive effect on educational practice while providing much-needed assistance to increasingly beleaguered proponents of integrated public education.”

It would be difficult to argue with the conclusion that it is “critical to learn …how to make integration work” in a society riven by enduring legacies of racial discrimination and the abusive powers of prejudice and white privilege. However, it is also interesting to speculate about the reasons why the system of public education is “increasingly beleaguered.” We can find one source of beleaguering pressure in Paul Krugman’s column from today in which he writes:

“The wealthy favor cutting federal spending on health care and Social Security — that is, “entitlements” — while the public at large actually wants to see spending on those programs rise.”

This populist line Krugman takes veers surprisingly close to the rhetorical cadences of Marx’s German Ideology and points to evidence of the passing of the eclipse of equality as a discursive structure of values in which policies can be positioned. For if Krugman’s sources are right and social protections like universal health care and Social Security are becoming less popular for the wealthy American, so too might be funding for public schools.

What we see in the gap between the Orfield and Krugman interpretations is a shift in story line. Both see injustices and inefficiencies that will produce a less just society, What differentiates them in this case is that one locates the abusive power in status terms (bigotry leading to segregation), while the other sees it in class terms (bigwigs of the 1% hoarding their cash and opportunities).

Either one of these stories can be applied to the same objective circumstances to produce quite different policy prescriptions. In the first case, the goal would be to change the way we see people of different races and to manage those differences of perception by cultural transformation. In the second case, the goal would be to change the way we plan institutions so that people with the ability to pay subsidize those without it. There would be less emphasis on perception, culture and inner life in the second case and more on structure, funding and outer effects. The actual people who benefitted from such approaches might overlap substantially, but the meaning of the intervention would be completely different. The first paradigm confronts the power of a dominant cultural group. The second confronts the power of a successful business elite. The tendency to confound problems engendered by an imbalance of power in favor of the business elite with those engendered by the cultural biases of an ethnic caste, to confuse class with status, is what I mean by the eclipse of equality. In this period of transvaluation, we have learned to see these two problems as identical, where they are in fact separable.

The irony of our time is that insofar as we liberals are correct that racism in the age of Obama remains virulent and pervasive, the coding of social interventions in terms of racial justice may limit the breadth of the appeal of egalitarian initiatives that would enrich and empower minorities. As a point of pride, most liberals I know are willing to accept the ongoing demolition of the New Deal system even in a time of depression if it means conceding the language of justice to those wracked by ongoing racial anxieties, but I suspect that we are entering a period in which we can walk and chew gum at the same time. To hazard a prediction, I suspect that the trend line for the “economic equality” phrase will begin to track upward over the next decade and the flavor of the books in which it appears will be more like the 1940s than it is the 1990s. The way we use the word eclipse suggests a permanent end, but it really only signals a temporary overshadowing.

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