Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Greed is a Grievance: Hate, Greed and the Meaning of Equality in the 21st Century

In Class and Social Stratification, Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Tolerance on April 30, 2013 at 10:46 am


As you must know by now, I’ve just written a book about public struggles over the meaning of a just society with an intriguing title, The Eclipse of Equality. The title is catchy, but it also a bit misleading. I know that many in my audience will gravitate toward or be repulsed by it based on our collective tendency to think about equality in the ways that we typically do, but there is an irony embedded in this title that I ought to explain or you will miss the whole point.

First, the standard story. What you likely imagine when I say that we have lived through an eclipse of equality is a story about the career of hatred in the modern world and the ways that dominant groups have used their hatred infused privilege to exploit and dominate others, even to the present day. Anticipating my turn to conversations about the economy, you might therefore expect that my book is about the enduring structural and systemic legacies of that hatred and our collective failure to address them. It is that book, in part, but the thesis also plays on a level beneath that common reading that qualifies and reframes the standard interpretation.

I argue that at the same time that we have become increasingly clever in recognizing the abusive powers of white, male, Christian, straight, abled privilege, we have forgotten how to think, feel and argue well about economic inequality thought of in its own terms. To suggest that there are enticing alternatives to be explored in comparative capitalisms comes off as odd and distracting in too many of our conversations. We have lived through an eclipse of the moral category of equality and this means that we have lost the ability to creatively imagine the world of material scarcity.

Consider this a family intervention: we need to face that we as a society no longer care much about economic equality. In fact, we’re kind of cool with the way things are playing out. Of course, we think we care about equality, but the way we talk about it proves that we really care about is just about anything but. When we speak about equality today, we always inflect it with other clarifying words that show where our red lines are drawn: tolerance, inclusion, identity and diversity.

As an empirical exhibit, consider the data from Figure 1. We see here a Google NGRAM on three bigrams, “economic equality,” “racial equality” and “gender equality.” This technique purports to capture the proportion of mentions of the phrase in all two-word phrases in books published in American English. If you look at the data at the onset of WWI, “economic equality” almost stands alone. By the end of WWII, “economic” and “racial” equality are tracking each other with a slight advantage to “economic.” By century’s end, “racial” and, especially, “gender equality” have supplanted the older phrase. This is little more than suggestive, but what it suggests is that when authors write about equality, the adjective they most commonly have in mind is an identity not a class category (“class equality” is on a lower order of magnitude of usage).

Figure 1.Image

The way I read this is, economic equality is important to us, but it’s absence is only “evil,” and therefore exciting, when it has some inflection of gender, race or sexuality privilege built into it. This perspective is general in our leading progressive organizations; take the powerful motto at the top of the post from the Third Wave Foundation, the brainchild of the pioneering woman, Rebecca Walker, who gave us the term Third Wave in the wake of the Anita Hill fiasco. The power words in the manifesto are youth, gender, sexuality and disability. This vocabulary of “interlocking oppressions” only derives its power from chosen traumas defined against bigoted cultures of every sort that either ignore difference (in the best case) or repress it hatefully (in the worst). The emphasis on interlocking is to make sure that you don’t forget the identity and cultural pieces of the whole. This is a holdover from the bad old days when we hadn’t even learned how to think, feel and argue about cultural oppression. But things have now been reversed. Inequity here and in most cutting edge leftist organizations is a cultural phenomenon with material consequences and structural supports (women only make seventy something cents on the male dollar, MLK died while pivoting to a struggle to eradicate poverty, etc.). This is subtle stuff and the whole game turns on whether you place the accent on structure vs. culture. King without the poverty agenda is different kind of civil rights leader. King without the race agenda is not a civil rights leader at all.

Amid all of this cultural innovation, our moral imaginations on matters economic have become simplified to the level of the Manichean melodrama of a blockbuster motion picture. Our world is all Capitalism vs. Socialism, planned economy vs. freedom. We can’t understand why someone would develop an exploitative and unfair economic system unless it was based on some species of hatred or chauvinism. We are morally dumbfounded when confronted by economic systems and micro-systems based less on hatred and more on the banality of advantage. But greed is not only a great motivator, it is also the source of many of our most “evil” institutions. Paul Collier, whose work at the World Bank was captured in the enticing phrase “Greed vs. Grievance on which I base this post, is great in his own way, but we get past his false choice by simply recognizing that greed is not only an explanatory alternative to grievance, it itself is a grievance. When the greedy become powerful, the market no longer disciplines them and the rules they make can ruin other people’s lives. Postwar economists don’t like economic villains (unless they are governments and unions), but there are plenty of them about and we are taught to see them only in caricature.

Let’s recover what drove Johan Galtung (the conflict resolver’s class theorist) to formulate his theory of structural violence. Although hate embedded in supremacist cultures (anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, homophobia) is an enemy of the good, so too is greed embedded in exploitative systems of the extraction, production, and distribution of goods and services. In classic form, exploitation is the base on which various forms of alienation take place. In other words, greed is a grievance, and you don’t need hatred to make it one. But in order for us to address the key challenges of our time, including the eradication of systems of hate production, we have to separate out, nurture and enliven the moral category of class, which means we will need to begin to see greed as a grievance, sui generis.

Our problem is that now that we have invented the moral hammer of the multiculturalism, every problem becomes a nail. We can’t even see class unless it intersects with race, gender, sexuality or disability, which matters because it means that every time we have to choose whether to compromise on either the class or identity piece of a proposition, we are inclined to offer up the class piece. The result is spiraling economic inequality, declining access to child-care, declining opportunities for minorities in housing, education and employment and a host of other identity reifying repercussions that make it ever more difficult to develop a more compassionate and tolerant society. My favorite line on this is from the sociologist and race researcher, Dalton Conley, who said “the only color I care about is green.”The formulas we should recite now are no class, no identity. No equality, no tolerance. Given the centrality of material life to cultural progress, this is the democratic dilemma we face. This holds as much for you Jack Kemps out there as it does for the Cornell Wests. Class polarization is our challenge and it will retard our attempts to celebrate our differences.

Nothing in what I’ve said suggests that people on the Left or Right should back off the encouraging momentum moving in the direction of increasing diversity, inclusion and tolerance. These are crucial victories in the democratic struggle against various forms of abusive power. But it does suggest that our biases now incline us more to unfairly favor cultural interpretations than they do economic ones. If you find yourself torn in framing the next Hurricane Katrina in both racial and class terms, assume that the class interpretation is the one that needs special attention. Where once the New Social Movements focused on culture and identity needed protection and cover from the old class movements, today the opposite is true. You can see this in the attention data supplied by Google books. Figure 2 contains mentions of civil rights and labor movements and the story should be familiar by now. Class is out; race is in.

Figure 2.Image

If we are going to get back to a politics that addresses economic inequalities that can be supported by the people power needed to move democratic governments, equality is going to have borrow some symbolic support from identity. Just as the Civil Rights Movement benefitted from the nurturing encouragement of key parts of the Labor Movement in the 50s and 60s, so too now the seedling ideas that might promote economic equality are going to have to get some ideological support from proponents of cultural inclusion. If you want to deal with the root causes of conflict today, you are gong to have to relearn how to think, talk and feel about them, and that starts with a refresher course on what we used to mean by equality—economic equality. Greed is a grievance: intervention over.


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