There’s this big contradiction: Our nation’s founding axioms set up certain equalities, justice for all, and democratic process. That is our grand political container.
But you may get none of those if you spend your waking hours working in an American corporation, which are often petty tyrannies. Maltreatment at work is common: bullying, threats, no due process, and nobody wants your democratic opinion. The justification for these dark work pits is that at least you are free to quit.
Shabby conditions in this, the most advanced nation.
Do you think that’s an exaggeration? Well, Studs Terkel interviewed a hundred Americans on the job, then began his report Working by writing, “This book, being about work, is by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body” (1), and Ehrenreich more recently has described the toxic pressures on workers which are used to produce profit in American work places (2).
Social inequality is the root. Maltreatment and coercive misery are unlikely if we are all equal. Would anybody prefer inequality?
The paradoxical answer is, yes. When Robert Lane (3) interviewed 15 conservative American men, asking them how they would react to real social equality, he got a faceful. Some of the men said equality would be chaotic, the world would collapse. All 15 said equality would deprived them of their goals and incentives in life. Apparently they were saying, what’s the point to life if you can’t rise? – And to rise, there must be inequality.
Next it’s obvious that inequality is divisive. It separates person from person. It breaks social bonds.
Actually, for a nation that mostly denies it has social clases, this country is fascinated with differences and rank. – And good deal of fear mixed in. It is part of the conservative fascination with strength over goodness.
Rawls (3) shows how this gets rationalized out: in the capitalist’s view, inequality is useful – it keeps different jobs in our economy staffed. Another rationalization: if the pain doesn’t actually kill you it will make you stronger. A third rationalization is that we are all driven by ‘laws of nature.’
And this is the Darwinian theme which propels business. Working America advances on divisive practices.
So for conservatives to make life worth living you need somebody to look down on. That struggle, played out day after day, means real life consequences. It spawns distrust, stress, which breeds suspiciousness. Check out conditions in some of our sales and marketing corporations. There’s a gladiator mentality. That person working next to you, hard-eyed and debt-indentured, wants your place. The crushed’s prime motivation in life is to join the crushers. And if you extend that to a whole nation? Pervasive distrust and a carnal desire to win has painted this nation in deep shadow.
It is jailhouse mentality. There can be no natural unity, if we follow that.
Some people seek safety, and there is always a life working for somebody else, but rather than leading to the proud American dream, it mainly leads to the submissive injustice of nothing but debt.
Having unity, and insisting on someone to rise above, is a contradiction in spirit.
So it is not equality that threatens this nation, as conservatives believe. Indeed, the reverse. This business of everybody against everybody is dropping this nation into chaos.
And these contradictions, and the rationalizations which support them, do not advance the nation. They bind and hobble us. An economy based on Darwin’s laws leave us no time for manufacture and productiveness. No fraternité . Indeed, they are leaving many Americans hungry.
And this is a challenge to any social philosopher, or economist. No matter how spine-stirring, something cannot be a law of nature if it destroys community. First principles endure: you cannot build, nor keep, a civil society based on competition, distrust, and fear of your neighbor’s intentions.
What can be done?
What’s the alternative?
The pursuit of justice first. More equality. Equality is the glue of friendship and bonding and trust.
But will this break a law of nature? No, because our first natural impulses are toward mutual support. Everyone begins that way, in every family. That is nature.
Mutual support, not a war of all against all.
So it is a founding axiom of this country, that all men are created equal. Justice first. Justice is what guides the sun in its path over this nation, not inequality. It is this vision of social justice that fires our community workers, civil rights workers, unionizers and anti-poverty workers.
Recognized, it is a difficult task to create amity and equity out of the conservative mind. Trying to salvage trust from a gladiator mentality. But this is the liberal mission: to put those detructive values in reverse. We in this vastly unequal society have everything to gain from equality of conditions.
We are pursuing human happiness, we are not animals. Rather than divide against each other, if we work together we will make a stronger nation.
These are liberal values: Resurrect justice. Tear down the paradoxes that make life worth living only at the expense of others. Tear down this toxic institution of man-against-man.
Mend our national spirit.
Notes. 1. Terkel, S. (1972) Working NY: New Press 2. Ehrenreich, B. (2005) Bait and switch NY: Metropolitan Books 3. Lane, R. (2004) The fear of equality, in Political psychology Eds. J. Jost, N. Sidanius. NY: Psychology Press, p. 217.