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Monday, February 23, 2015

Inequality: A Matter of Conflict?

Inequality: A Matter of Conflict?

Inequality is inevitably a matter of conflict between the 1 percent
and the 99 percent.

By Peter Marcuse
Inequality.org
February 23, 2015

Social inequality is caused not by any technical developments or by
agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it but rather
by the 1 percent who have the power to impose it.

How do they impose this power?

Through exploitation, dispossession, and incorporation.

Inequality is inevitably a matter of conflict between the 1 percent
and the 99 percent.

Any serious effort to reduce inequality must deal with this simple
fact.

It should be clear that we are talking about social inequality,
inequalities in social relations reflecting hierarchies of power and
wealth, not individual differences or inequalities in strength,
wisdom, inherent abilities, virtues.

It is of course what Jefferson meant in the Declaration of
Independence’s ringing declaration: “all men are created equal.”

They obviously differ in size, weight, talent, strength, desires, etc.;
it’s the social relations among them that is in question.

But what are the concrete processes that create social inequality,
that permit the 1 percent to impose social inequality in society to
their benefit?

The answer, again, can be given in a few words:

Exploitation, Historical Dispossession, Capitalist Dispossession
(Expropriation), and Incorporation.

Historic dispossession actually came first, in primitive societies
and pre-feudal monarchies and empires and autocracies.

The 1 percent—the established rulers, chieftains, monarchs—simply
were entitled to take possession of what they wanted from anyone
in their power.

They did this through the exercise of brute force: slavery, where
the masters took possession of anything of the slaves that they
wished; and war, where the spoils of the war were simply taken
by the victors from the losers.

The practice persisted well into feudalism, with the divine right of
kings (even Mozart built on its recognition in Figaro’s objection to
the exercise of the Rights of the Seigneur in 1786).

And the dispossession of villagers’ use of the traditional commons
for grazing, what we would now call privatization, was a significant
part of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Exploitation is a widely understood concept that focuses on the
processes by which one person or group obtains the benefits of
someone else’s labor through the payment of wages that do not
equal the value of that labor.

The profits accruing to the employer in that relationship accrue to
capital, are a “return to capital” in Piketty’s sense, a conspicuously
non-judgmental phrase for a relationship that could raise some
questions of justice but which clearly benefit the 1 percent and the
expense of a major part of the 99 percent.

As capitalist forms of production expand and globalize,
the result is mounting inequality.

Capitalist dispossession, however, accompanies the drive for ever-
increasing profit (what Marx calls primitive accumulation and David
Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession).

Colonialism is its manifestation at the international level,
but that is paralleled at the national level.

Rosa Luxemburg spoke of “The right to take possession, oppression,
looting, are openly displayed without any attempt at concealment,
and implemented by force if necessary.”

But in its mature capitalist form it is put forward as a right, and a
right available to anyone, not merely of a chieftain or king exerting
a hereditary or divine right to its exercise.

Foreclosing on a mortgage effectively dispossesses the “owner”
of the house, and expropriates the house to the bank or financial
institution that holds the mortgage.

The force behind it is state sanctioned and applied, if not under
specific legislation then by execution of judgments in courts of
law.

The Sheriff will enforce the order of eviction a court grants
and forcefully put the owner’s property on the street.

Contemporary dispossession (expropriation) differs from both
its preceding forms, historic and capitalist, in two major ways;

Contemporary dispossession is much less focused on physical
dispossession, and involves a whole range of broader goods
and assets, including property rights in all sorts of values
which are included when one speaks of inequality.

Contemporary dispossession might more properly be called
expropriation, the taking of some key rights in that bundle
of rights called ownership, key rights that go into the
composition of wealth and power that Piketty, unlike Marx,
lumps together in the term capital.

The most obvious, of course, is the right to income or a share
in the profits from an investment.

Expropriation here is not the taking of the physical stock
certificate, but the justification for not honoring a supposed
“right” to a proper return on the investment.

The right to an education, the right to health care, the right not to
be discriminated against, the right to security of the person, the
right to the sanctity of the home free of trespass, the right to vote,
are all rights the 1 percent take for granted, but that large parts
of the 99 percent find are barely available to them, if at all.

The effective elimination of those rights in practice leads directly
to the relative reduced wealth and income of the 99 percent
and the expansion of the wealth and income of the 1 percent,
increasing inequality by the most conventional of measures, and
in a quite fundamental way.

As an example, every reduction in the progressivity of taxes used
to make such rights meaningful goes directly in the pockets of the
1 percent and the expense of those in need of those rights.

Contemporary dispossession in fact largely creates
those very rights and values it then expropriates.

Ironically, when the “owner” of a home among the 99 percent loses
it in foreclosure, his or her very ability to purchase it was enabled
through high credit by the institutions of the 1 percent, who end up
unharmed by the foreclosure.

The bank owner, surely among the 1 percent, itself enabled the
creation of the owned homes of many of the 99 percent which it
helped finance, and then through foreclosure dispossesses the
homeowner of that home to its own benefit, widening the gap
between the two.

The whole process of financialization, and the credit bubble it
engendered has caused harm to the 99 percent from which the
1 percent have benefited, so that their share of the society’s
wealth has increased while that of the 99 percent has decreased.

How could the 1 percent get away with this, in an advanced
democracy?

It couldn’t happen without support, including much active support,
from a large part of the population, at least in the so-called
“advanced democracies.”

Incorporation is the best term I can think of for the answer.

Not in the sense of forming a corporation, of course, but in the
sense of absorbing any potential resistance within it, making
the resistance itself part of the system it attempts to criticize.

Co-optation might be an easier term, but it is co-optation at a
fundamental level, deliberately provoked and nurtured out of
self-interest.

But then internalized as natural, inevitable, and indeed desirable
by the majority whose interests are in fact badly served by it.

If the key cause of inequality is what was theorized at the
opening here:

Social inequality is caused, not by any technical developments or
by agreement that it is just or because the people wanted it, but
because it directly serves the interest of the 1 percent who have
the power to impose it.

The question becomes how have the 1 percent amassed that power,
and why are the 99 percent not able to resist it?

But that question is simply missing from mainstream discussions
of inequality, and rarely raised even in critical discussions about
economics from the left where it might be expected.

Instead what critical analysis exists is incorporated in a mainstream
analysis that neglects fundamental conflicts and instead pokes at
the edges of the problem sometimes with sensible but limited
suggestions for reform.

And as the discussion veers away from these conflicts at the
ideological level, the political attitude towards inequality likewise
veers away from unsettling proposals and ends up incorporated
within the mainstream in at best mild reforms at its edges and at
worst celebrating its existence.

Such incorporation into the mainstream is produced by the
combination of two factors:

1) at the discourse level, suppression of the reality of conflict:
public analysis of the issues incorporated into an acceptable
mainstream blind to the conflict-laden causes and alternatives,
and spread through media practices and institutional support
into the popular consciousness; and

2) at the political level, consumerism leads to acquiescence: the
strong lure of artificially induced consumerism, as reality and as
hope, smothers criticism and incorporates the potential critic into
the mainstream of acquiescence.

At the discourse level the public discussion of inequality is
strangely limited.

It not only circles around partial or simply wrong answers,
inequality is indeed spoken of in public, and even makes the best
seller lists (i.e. Piketty), but the public discussion fails to address
the right questions, or acknowledge the conflicts of interests and
motivations.



Peter Marcuse is Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at Columbia
University in New York City. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School
and a Ph.D. in planning from the University of California at Berkeley.

http://inequality.org/inequality-matter-conflict

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