Old Discourse on New Inequality – Andy Merrifield

Inequality has plagued the human landscape at least since the time Rousseau penned his classic Discourse on Inequality in 1755. One wonders what the man would have made of things today? Had he still been around, had he travelled around the globe a bit, with eyes open, with mind focused, typically critically and inquiringly, Rousseau would have doubtless despaired; he’d have despaired of how little “civilized” society had really ameliorated those “artificial” inequalities that derive from the conventions that govern us. Here’s Rousseau, proud citizen of Geneva, speaking thirty-four years before the French Revolution, a revolution he supposedly helped author, yet never lived to see himself: “one sees a handful of powerful and rich men on the pinnacle of grandeur and fortune, while the crowd grovels in obscurity and wretchedness.” “A handful of people gorge themselves with superfluities while a multitude goes in want of necessities.” “Luxury, impossible to prevent among men who are greedy for their own comforts and for consideration from others, soon completes the damage that societies begin, and on the pretext of keeping alive the poor, a pretext of which there is no need, luxury impoverishes everyone else, and sooner or later depopulates the state.” If we can believe Rousseau, what’s happened between “nascent society,” and the subsequent maturity of advanced urban society, has been a “fraudulent social contract,” imposed upon the poor by the rich. And somehow, in assorted shapes and forms, we’ve been living out that fraud ever since.

Had Rousseau still been around, maybe he’d have also played a cameo role in a new hit documentary, Inequality for All, directed by Jacob Kornbluth with economist Robert Reich as the unlikely lead. (Rousseau’s appearance would have only been cameo, of course, because later in life he avoided the limelight he’d courted earlier in life; and he was a reluctant public orator, despite being a dab hand at voicing inconvenient public truths.) Inequality for All follows Reich teaching his packed undergraduate class on Wealth and Poverty at UC Berkeley. In 1978, Reich says, your typical male worker doing just fine in the US was pulling in around $48,000 a year; your boss back then was probably making around $390,000. Thirty-odd years on, in 2010, the former struggles to earn $33,000 a year, while the latter’s average share has bloated to well over a million bucks a year.

Union busting, wage depreciation and market deregulation have led to huge hikes in national wealth but little has trickled down. Rather, it’s been creamed off by skyrocketing executive salaries, by super-inflated bonuses and massive payoffs for serially failing company bosses and no-mark bankers. The number of billionaires, unsurprisingly, has risen exponentially; and six-figure earner tax rates frequently dip under 10%, against the 30% for your average stiff. Costs of living, meanwhile, continue to soar — costs of everyday commodities, costs of housing, costs of healthcare (in both the UK and US), and costs of education. “Where America leads,” Reich says, “the rest of the world follows. This same thing is affecting people all over the world. If nothing is done to reverse this trend, Britain will find itself in exactly the same place as America in just a few years time.” Indeed, as at December 2010, 10% of the fattest cats in the UK own 40% of the national wealth; and Royal Bank of Scotland investment bankers, after finagling Libor interest-rates, now apparently contemplate awarding themselves bonuses in excess of£250 million.

And just when it’s needed most, a strong state turns cowardly, has desisted from holding out a safety net. In many ways, that net has so many holes in now that any falling object slips through. Now, states have systematically backed off from funding those public goods — “collective consumption” goods — items consumed collectively, like transport and utilities, like hospitals and schools and public spaces. The state has capitulated, restructured itself in times of “austerity,” the latest buzzword for neoliberal governance not only to step back from addressing concerns of inequality, but in a lot of ways to directly perpetuate inequality; because, now, states have sold off these collectively owned goods to private capital at knockdown prices; and sometimes at no price at all.

Never before has growth — particularly urban growth — depended so centrally on the creation of new mechanisms to wheel and deal finance capital and credit money, on new deregulated devices, underwritten by the state, for looting and finagling, for absorbing surplus capital into real estate speculation. These days capital accumulation predicates itself not so much on production as such but on dispossession, on expropriation — an alternative growth strategy a lot more creatively destructive than in Marx’s day; now it offers fresh terrains for speculation and market expansion: asset-stripping through mergers and acquisitions, pension funds raiding, biopiracy and privatization of hitherto common assets (like water and power utilities); all told, a general pillaging of publicly-owned property.

Our old friend Baron Haussmann once tore into central Paris, into its old neighborhoods and poorer populations, dispatching the latter to the periphery as he speculated on the center; the built urban form became simultaneously a property machine and a means to divide and rule; today, neo-Haussmannization, as I’ve been calling it, is a process that likewise integrates financial, corporate and state interests, yet tears into the globe and seizes land through forcible slum clearance and a handy vehicle for dispossession known as “eminent domain.” Once, seemingly long ago, this latter act of public sequestration was done, albeit disruptively, in the name of some greater common good — you know, like commandeering land that’d eventually be used for public infrastructure. Now, it expresses the public sector expropriating land and then giving it away for upscale private re-appropriation, letting private economic interests cash in on legalized looting. Many urban areas the world over have seen the greatest land grab in history, when big corporate money obtain at practically no cost great swaths of land for redevelopment.

Which promptly begs the question: Whose austerity? Even a cursory glance at the bourgeois press (circa, February, 2013) reveals bundles. European Union leaders, we hear, began “marathon talks” in Brussels about new budget plans that “reflect the climate of austerity across a continent still struggling to emerge from a crippling debt crisis.” The task, in other words, is to hammer down public spending, to hammer down public services, to hammer down public sector jobs and pay — seemingly while private sector spending has no limits, no ceiling, not even a glass one. Indeed, that same week as EU bigwigs debated austerity, Michael Bloomberg (no stranger to imposing austerity on his Big Apple fiefdom — cf. his recent clampdown of school bus driver pay raises) negotiated extending his billion dollar empire “over the pond,” in London, in a major new expansion in what will be one of the UK’s most prestigious locations, “Bloomberg Place” in Kensington. And in Bloomberg’s London home at Cadogan Square, Mayor Mike is spending over $20 million alone on installing air-conditioning. This at the same time as Ibrahim Ibrahimov, another of those “handful” of the world’s wealthiest billionaires, spearheads his $100 billion dream project of developing fifty-five islands and the world’s tallest tower in the Caspian Sea. (The tower itself will cost $3 billion.) And, to cap it all, February was a good month for the luxury art market: Sotheby’s sold 52 works for £121 million, and Christie’s auctioned a stand alone Modigliani for £27 million.

*  *  *

Rousseau would have found these data, these headlines and news tidbits, interesting curiosities rather than anything particularly shocking; they were nothing his intuitive reason wouldn’t have already known, wouldn’t have already felt, felt in the air. He’d have probably seen the like around any urban neighborhood, out on a daily peregrination, when he’d ruminate on foot and “apply his barometer to the soul of men,” himself included. (“I have never been able to write or think with any ease,” he says in Confessions, “except in the open air… as soon as I stop, I can no longer think, for my mind moves only when my feet do.”) Rousseau wasn’t voicing grim empirical truths about inequality that everyday people already knew anyway, from their working (and non-working) lives; his spirit was much more inventive and imaginative than that, much more original and radical, instinctively and spontaneously stirring up trouble. He was neither economist nor empiricist: he didn’t need “evidence” to back up his own structure of feeling reality, his own way of grasping and groping reality; his knowledge came from a certain perception of things, not from a certain measurement of things; it was no less meaningful for all that. We might even see Rousseau alongside Lefebvre and Benjamin: as one of our philosophers of the city — despite him sometimes holding powerful anti-urban sentiments. Though as Sébastien Mercier points out in Le tableau de Paris [1788], while “Rousseau’s imagination dwelt only in meadows, waters and woods, with their animated solitude… as he approached the age of sixty, he returned [in 1770] to live in Paris, in rue Plâtrière, in other words, the most noisy, uncomfortable, crowded and diseased of bad places.”

When Rousseau writes in his “second discourse” about inequality he does so as a moralist and philosopher. (Rousseau’s “first discourse” won Dijon Academy’s prize in 1751 for best essay “on the science and arts,” on whether progress in each had improved human morals; Rousseau’s response was a categoric NO!) Rousseau wasn’t so much interested in analyzing the facts as speculating on causes, causes that are, he says, rooted in human behavior, in humanly created institutions, which seem to take on a life of their own, alienating people, dispossessing masses of men and women of their inner selves and inner worth. Thus, for Rousseau, inequality spells a loss of human potentiality, and of human dignity.

Corruption isn’t inevitable in itself; people are corruptible, he says, only in a certain context, in a context like ours that seems to reward those who do the least for society and the most for themselves. In many ways Rousseau’s discourse anticipates Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, written almost a century later, laying bare the corrupting “power of money”: “I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid,” says Marx, “but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid?”

Both Rousseau and Marx see private property as fueling human vanity, as provoking, in Rousseau’s words, “the usurpations of the rich and the brigandage of the poor”; “war begins,” says Rousseau, “when the idea of property is born and one man claims as his own what another man’s hunger prompts him to seize.” Unlike Marx, though, Rousseau isn’t against private property per se: he’s against a culture that rewards accumulating property and wealth, and the human instinct that seems to prop up that selfish passion: amour-propre, Rousseau famously calls it, or “pride,” self-centered greed, a haughty desire to be superior to everybody else. To have self-esteem or even self-love — amour de soi-même — is one thing; but amour-propre (pride) is another thing again. “Self-love is a natural sentiment,” Rousseau says in one of his numerous, lengthy footnotes to Discourse on Inequality, “which prompts every animal to watch over its own conservation”; “pride,” on the other hand, “is only a relative, artificial sentiment born in society, a sentiment which prompts each individual to attach more importance to himself than to anyone else, which inspires all the injuries men do to themselves and others.”

But Rousseau’s morality play about property and pride has decisive political implications; always his views have decisive political implications. “I had seen that everything is rooted in politics,” he says in Confessions, “and that, whatever the circumstances, a people will never be other than the nature of its government makes it. In other words, that great question, as to which is the best possible form of government, seemed to me to come down in the end to this one: what is the nature of the government most likely to produce the most virtuous, the most enlightened, the wisest, and in short, taking this word in its widest sense, the best people?”

*  *  *

Rousseau was a strange, restless autodidact who never seemed to fit in anywhere for very long. He was a republican contemptuous of the courtiers of the ancien régime and of an ascendent bourgeoisie, with its wealth of nations. (The standpoint brought him much closer to Diderot than to Voltaire.) He abhorred old and new money alike — well, almost alike, because he cozied up to the former for pastoral refuge. Rousseau’s vision of a new social contract, in which liberty and law coexist in equal measure, coexist to support and reinforce one another, is a system of governance that rips off its aristocratic fetters at the same time as it moves beyond the conceit (and fraud) of bourgeois liberal democracy — as he and we still know it. It’s a vision that continues to challenge us to see things in a different way.

To be sure, the world Robert Reich describes in Inequality for All as a pre-1978 regime now seems like our very own ancien régime, when we had the middle-classes bookended by working classes on the poorer side — with a lumpenproletariat at the very fringes of that side — and a bourgeoisie on the other much richer side. Yet this “much richer” side has taken a peculiar turn. In our nouveau régime, members of the upper bourgeoisie have risen to such prominence, have accumulated such wealth and power, that now they assume the mantle of what I’ve been calling a new aristocracy, an astonishingly rich, new-monied group of people who behave like a veritable class of old feudal lords, presiding not only over particular companies, but over whole national and supra-international governments as well. (Half the US’s assets, remember, are owned by just 400 people.) Correspondingly, a big chunk of the middle ground has caved in, imploded, and a “moral depreciation” (as Marx labelled economically redundant fixed capital) has been inflicted on real living human beings; meaning these middling types have slipped into the ranks of the sans-culottes, finding it evermore difficult to make ends meet, just as the top 1% has decoupled itself from the rest of us. And while the absolute exploitation of labour remains an evident string in the bow of this rich aristocracy, more often than not they’re now the bearers of flows of merchant and rentier capital, filching profits from unequal exchanges and interest-bearing assets, as well as from claims to rent accruing from monopoly control of urban land.

In one of the great works on the French Revolution, Les sans-culottes (1968), Albert Soboul points to the influence Rousseau exerted on the revolutionary throng, even if few from this throng had actually read his great texts. Somehow his republican ideals were immanent in the epoch, voiced and debated in the Jacobin societies, but also lived out and practiced by the popular masses. Robespierre, a close reader, worshipped Rousseau; Rousseau, the former said, was his maître and teacher; and Robespierre endorsed the Swiss citizen’s sovereignty of the “general will,” together with the notion that any Republic can survive only with a measure of social equality. Soboul cites one citizen from 1793 saying: “According to the Geneva philosopher [Rousseau], the social state was no use to man ‘unless everyone had something and no one had too much.’ Whereas it is true that an equitable distribution of money can be looked upon as being an illusion by anyone of intelligence, it is nevertheless also true that the monstrous disproportion that exists between the proud millionaire [and proud billionaire] and the humble wage earner cannot be permitted much longer in the new order of things.”

And in that “new order of things” the legitimacy of popular insurrection is inalienable; Rousseau declares the like: “The insurrection which ends with the strangling or dethronement of a sultan,” he says, toward the dénounement to Discourse on Inequality, “is just as lawful an act as those by which he disposed the day before of the lives and property of his subjects. Force alone maintained him; force alone overthrows him.” And yet, as Soboul confirms, the sans-culottes weren’t a class as such: instead they comprised, perhaps still comprise, artisans and small shopkeepers, modest merchants and “journeymen men [and women] day laborers — along with a bourgeois minority,” those, we might say, who’ve slipped into the popular ranks and are beginning to know it.

The sans-culottes represented an irresistible force undergirding a coalition collectively conscious of a common enemy; it was a strategic alliance that recognized and needs still to recognize a common revolutionary project, similar to yet different from 1789. For now the revolutionary insurrection must rid itself of a new aristocracy without having a liberal bourgeoisie step in in its stead. The revolutionary movement against economic absolutism needs, then, the sans-culottes leading the way, retaining its hatred of the aristocracy while being forever leery of well-meaning short-term reformism. A passionate desire for equality might cue this militancy and get debated in any emergent Jacobin society. Meanwhile, a new social contract needs drafting, initially in pencil, before getting definitively rubber-stamped in ink in the streets, in the new and necessary citizen’s agoras we’ve yet to invent.

À suivre…

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Subversive Politics and the Imagination

Andy Merrifield

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