Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Making Historical Sense of Redistribution and the Just Society...

As you dear unreaders have probably noticed by now I am amused and bemused by a lot of the discourse, particularly the right wing discourse, surrounding politics in the Western world and particularly in the United States these days. Why? Because it is so ahistorical and so lacking in sociological understanding. Take the issue of redistribution.

Any time you have large scale societies with significant chasms between rich and poor and growing chasms between rich and poor and between the powerful and powerless you are going to have redistribution. Look at Ancient Sumer, at Ancient Egypt, at Ancient China, at Mediaeval Europe, at the Byzantine Empire, at the Soviet Union, and at the US, all societies where power, money, and wealth (including property) were redistributed generally in very similar ways. I apologise to all of you out there who prefer to have your US and USSR history in binary and manichean form but hey, history is history.

Generally redistribution takes money from the less powerful and less wealthy and redistributes it to the more powerful (political, economic, religious) and more wealthy (politicians, business leaders, religious leaders). It is almost impossible to escape redistribution because of these imbalances of power and wealth. Why? Because as history shows there are generally imbalances of power whenever you have complex societies, complex societies with kings, princes, priests, party chairmen, politburos, corporate robber barons, congressmen and women and so on. Even communes in Western complex societies, that form that has most tried to do something about the inequalities that characterise the modern world of economic and political bureaucracies and inequalities of power and wealth, have generally been unable to turn back the inequality clock. The only time in human history, in fact, that we have had significant equality was in the human past before the rise of cities and "civilisations" and in those hunter-gathering societies that survived the rise of the modern world.

Now don't get me wrong. There are things complex societies and states can do about inequalities. Some nation-states have used the apparatus of the state to try to create a juster society. The problem here, of course, is that not everyone agrees on what constitutes the just in the just or juster society. For those on the puritanical and religious right just often means using the federal or state apparatus to censor television, censor radio, censor films, inhibit gay and lesbian practises, inhibit abortion, inhibit the imbibing of alcohol or other drugs, build up a strong military defence (where defence, ironically, usually means just the opposite, military offence). Laissez-faire Liberals have tended to use the state to provide economic leaders with the means to the end of ever greater profits via its legal and police apparatus including the use of the state militia to put down attempts by workers to unionise. Social Liberals have tended to use the state to ameliorate the more negative Scrooge-like aspects of "unfettered capitalism" but only to a limited extent. Leftists have long had dreams about bringing about a just society through cooperation or via eliminating the factors that the believe drives extreme inequality.

In Scandinavia, for instance social insurance liberals and leftists used government action to reduce quite significantly the chasm between rich and poor and reduce poverty particularly after World War II. In the process they have become some of the wealthiest nations on earth (when measured by GDP), quite an achivement given the poverty in the region in the 1930s. Even in that vaunted "holy land" of "free enterprise", the United States, the gap between rich and poor was reduced as were levels of poverty between 1945 and the 1970s. It was A.R., after Reagan, that in the US, that chasms between rich and poor and poverty levels rose once again thanks in large part to a renewed war on the left, on labour, and on the social insurance state itself, a "populist" revolt led by right wing "populist" demagogues in the service of the rich and powerful.

What is ironic here, of course, is that while many neo-liberals issue jeremiads against welfare and public utilities they are far too often silent if not supportive, of the wealthfare state (the mote in their own eyes?), the wealth that is redistributed from taxpayers to wealthy corporations. But then I suppose such inconsistency or hypocrisy is inevitable given that most people have imbibed the status quo ideologies of the wealthy and powerful which maintain that inequality is natural rather than as social and cultural.

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