Lessons From History II: Bernard Williams: What Hope For the Humanities?

To hear influential people in politics, the media, business, and university administration tell the tale, the sole point of life is to find “jobs.”  Even union leaders join the chorus, although they usually add the qualifier “good” jobs, but do not define “good” save in terms of wages and benefits. I can imagine a young couple laying in bed, amourous, hopeful for the future, looking at one another and saying:  “Lets make a baby tonight, honey, so we can watch them grow up and find a job.”  What passes for political argument today lionizes “the job creators”  (even though they do not seem to create enough of them), and wise council for the young always instructs them to instrumentalize their entire life, including their education, so that everything they do  and study helps them find a job.  “Don’t post a picture on Instagram of you smoking a joint, it might hurt your chances of landing a job.  Don’t waste your education on frivolous subjects, find out what employers want and study that, so that you can land a job.”  This is the cultural narrative today that is creating an enrollment crisis in the humanities.

While the crisis is real, it is not the first time that the humanities have been in crisis.  Writing at the end of the Thatcher nightmare, the great British philosopher  Bernard Williams confronted problems similar to what humanists (classical scholars, historians, scholars and critics of literature, philosophers)  are confronting today.  Such is the similarity of the cultural narrative between 1987 and 2016 that, from reading the first sentence of his short essay (“What Hope for the Humanities?” Essays and Reviews, 1959-2002) it would be difficult to decide in what year he was writing:  “It will be no news that Humanities Departments in UK universities are suffering from a lack of morale, lack of recruitment, and from pressures exerted by cuts in the past and more it seems, to come.”(p.267)  (And come they did in the UK, in the form of devastating cuts to grants to students who chose to study the humanities).

In the face of historical and on-going cuts, the humanities required a defence then, and they require a defence now.  But as William’s essay reminds us, it matters not just that they be defended from those who would chop them, but also on what basis that defence is mounted.  One line of argument, which Williams dubs “The Leather Blotter” defense is easy and effective, as far as protecting the humanities being taught in some generic form for the sake of rounding out the education of (mostly privileged) people who will go on to do more serious things in business and science.  “One style of defence of the Humanities says “the Humanities are cultivated in a  civilized society.”  The defence is put forward for a variety of motives, many of them excellent, and what it says is also, as a matter of fact, true.  The trouble is that it can be too easily associated with some views that are very bad defences, because they effectively accept the luxury status of the Humanities.  These assimilate the Humanities to aspects of expensively cultivated life, to such things as select outings with a well-behaved company and an adequate aesthetic content.” (p.268) These sort of defences are bad for three reasons.

The first, as Williams wittily implies, is that it reduces humanistic education to the spit and polish of white bourgeois finishing school, the rounding out that gentlemen (and now ladies) historically needed to acquire in order to be interesting dinner companions and give the appearance of all-round cultivation.  In this version, the humanities are preserved, but only as a superficial sheen of aesthetic cultivation laid over an essentially commercial world view that governs social life and individual motivation.

The second, not fully unpacked by Williams but clearly implied by his critique of the Leather Blotter view, is that this sort of defence is class-bound and exclusionary.  If all that the humanities cultivate is dining room patter, the ability to quote snippets of poetry, and voice semi-intelligent remarks at galleries or the theatre, they are useless for people who do not go to galleries or the theatre.  Their study will be reserved for those who can pay to acquire a superficial survey of the canon. At the level of the university system one can imagine the humanities surviving in some form at the most expensive private universities and disappearing from smaller ones, which would hasten their decline to the status of technical institutes.

The third reason why this sort of defence is bad is because it does not defend robust social and institutional investment in thriving humanities departments within which research in the humanities takes place.  “What has to be discussed first is the pursuit of certain subjects— the organised, funded, necessarily institutional pursuit of certain subjects, of certain kinds of knowledge.” (p.270)  Few who criticize the humanities criticize their being taught in the Leather Blotter form.  No, what they object to is research in the humanities, i.e., thriving humanities departments in which people study because they want to become philosophers or scholars of renaissance poetry.  Since that research does not produce money-value for private appropriation (i.e., it has no economic value in a capitalist society), these critics conclude that the humanities have no value at all.  And if the humanities have no value at all, there are no grounds for using public funds to support humanities departments. (For more on the relation between the teaching of the humanities and the crisis of academic labour, see Sami Siegelbaum’s fine essay “Once More on the Crisis of the Humanities”).

Now, there is something right in this argument:  if some institution has no value at all, then it should not be the recipient of public funds.  The question is:  is money-value the only value that there is?  The answer here is obviously “no.”  A moment’s reflection on ordinary usage is sufficient to remind us that we regularly talk about aesthetic value, sentimental value, political value, moral value, nutritional value; the value of friendship, the value of family, the value of laughter.  One could go on.  Having established that there are many more kinds of value than economic value, the question is:  what sort of value do the humanities create.

There are two sorts of answers that have some truth, but are not the primary forms of value that defenders of the humanities should focus upon.  The first maintains that, contrary to their economistic critics, the humanities do produce monetary value, and should therefore be supported for the same reasons as investment in mathematics and engineering is supported.  While it is true that some work in the humanities can lead to the production of economic value, this defence is not the strongest, since it simply accepts what is in fact the primary cause of the crisis of the humanities:  the belief that there is no other value than money-value.  If supporters of the humanities rely on this argument alone, they will not be able to protect all forms of scholarship in the humanities, but only those which can defend themselves at the court of money-value.

A second and closely related argument maintains that the humanities are instrumentally valuable because they teach “soft skills,”  like communication and open-mindedness, which are useful on the job market.  The term “soft skills”  is (or should be)  repugnant to anyone who works in the humanities.  It connotes that there is no value to the actual subject matter studied in our disciplines, and that there are no demanding and rigorous methods whose mastery requires decades of devotion and effort; that all the humanities are good for (so it does not matter which you study) is the breezy acquisition of generic skills, which stand in invidious contrast to the “hard”   skills of scientifically serious work. But as Hegel pointed out,  the fact that you have the measure of your shoe in your foot does not mean that you know how to make your shoes.  The idea that there is really nothing to the humanities save opinion and soft skills proves only the ignorance of the person who makes the claim.

Now, if it is true that there is more to life than jobs and wages, we must ask what perspective makes this truth apparent.  Not an economic perspective (at least not an orthodox economic perspective)  since it assumes that people are rationally self-interested and rationally self-interested people are bent exclusively on maximizing their money-holdings.  Not from a natural scientific perspective, which (unless it smuggles in principles from philosophy) must treat human beings as material systems with no intrinsic value.  It is only from the perspective of disciplines which study the ways in which human beings treat and make their lives meaningful that life has more value than as an instrument of money-value creation.  And those disciplines are the humanities.

Hence, the real line of defence for humanistic scholarship and research has to run through the idea– unavoidable from a first person perspective but incompatible with natural scientific principles– that human life is meaningful.  But meaningful how?  The answer is not obvious, but demands reflection.  But reflection on what?  Not one’s own individual existence which, outside of socio-cultural context, is an abstraction.  So what is left?  Precisely the socio-cultural systems, in all of their institutional, political, symbolic, aesthetic, normative, and spiritual complexity in which human beings have made their existence meaningful by living, loving, struggling, fighting, building, destroying, and changing their worlds, and thinking about all of this while or after they do it.

But also:  the methods, and methodological disputes that the attempt to study these systems, not just as dead facts but living realities which meant something to those who lived in them, demand and give rise to.  And:  the sorts of problems that arose in these socio-cultural wholes, and within the different specific domains of practice (art, etc.,)  of which they are composed, which is the dynamic element in history, creating the need and opportunity for change.  And:  the sorts of exclusions that given socio-cultural wholes and the specific domains of practice that compose them have imposed on the sub-altern and the heterodox.  And:  together, the possibility– but only the possibility– of not only determining, on the whole and in the specific fields of practice, the better and the worse,  but insight into how we can go on today, correcting the worse and making it better, on the whole and in the specific.

In short, the value of the humanities comes down to two inter-related factors:  complex historical understanding, and the possibility of social criticism.  “The classic error of thoughtless conservatism,”  Williams argues, “is to forget that what is old is merely what used to be new.  One form it can take is to invest the traditional with a sacred quality, another, and at the present time more destructive form, is to forget that anything has a history at all, and to suppose that the social world simply consists of a set of given objects to be manipulated by go-getting common sense.  No such views are likely to survive unchanged by the enquiries of a truthful and imaginative history.”  (p. 273)  To understand that we have a (political, cultural, social, aesthetic, moral, spiritual) history is to understand that human life is shaped and changed by human thought and practice.  The belief that the forms of human life are timeless is the enemy of social criticism and change.

Natural laws may (in a sense)  be timeless, but social laws are not. To understand them we need to pay attention to the play of opposing forces, to context, to belief, as much as to more basic material conditions in which these factors play out.  There is no engineering or algorithmic solution to the crisis in Syria or global warming precisely because political beliefs and normative choices (that Sunni interests can only be protected in the Caliphate, for example, or that the raison’ d’etre of life is to consume as much as possible, without regard to the energy requirements) enter into the play of forces.  No idea has ever been destroyed by mere force, but only defeated through arguments that change convictions.  Arguments alone are never enough, but again, as Hegel said, the conceit that will not argue is inhuman and a primary impediment to political progress.

Is there any higher conceit today than that money decides the truth?  And if there are no historians, philosophers, and students of literature to insist that in fact there are other and better human motivations, who will be left to make the case?  And if there is no one left to make that case, what hope for concrete solutions to the problems humanity faces today?  The crisis of the humanities is thus a crisis of the world that needs the humanities (to contribute the historical-critical self-understanding that practical solutions to the crisis requires) but cannot tolerate the underlying spirit of the answer they give, which is to affirm the creative and the imaginative over against the pecuniary and what merely serves the powerful.

Just as everyone has an interest in the fruits of natural scientific understanding of the physical world, so too everyone has an interest in the fruits of humanistic understanding (and criticism) of the social world.  If that claim is true, then we need to vigorously defend humanistic research, and, as a vital part of that defence, the sort of university in which that research can be undertaken and taught.  This sort of university is, as it was in 1987, under threat.  That it survived is perhaps cause for hope that it can make it through again, but not without a fight.

Identity Politics, Cultural Appropriation, and Solidarity

The Political Aesthetics of Abstraction

It is easy to change the appearance  of political arguments by abstracting them from the historical context in which they emerge.  Just as the apparent colour of an object can be changed by altering the light in which it appears (an object under ultraviolet light looks to be a different colour than under infrared or sunlight) so too serious political arguments can be made to appear frivolous when separated out from their historical background.  Certain figures in the media are masters of the parlour trick of cherry picking titles and argument-fragments that, in abstraction from the argument as a whole and a longer-term view of history, sound absurd.  Margaret Wente is a paragon of this intellectual non-virtue.  In a recent article she makes fun of academic cultural studies for making what sound like non-sensical critiques of the “whiteness”  of pumpkin latte and the sexism of glaciology.

Let us be fair:  if you only read the title, and you do not link the particular claim (about lattes or glaciology)  to longer term histories of racism and sexism, then it does sound ridiculous to claim that pumpkin lattes are racist or the study of glaciers sexist.  But is it ridiculous to argue that there is a history of sexism in Western science or that Tim Hortons has built a coffee empire on an advertising construction of a very white Canadian cultural practice:  early mornings drinking coffee at the rink while your boy (and now girl) plays hockey.  How many women scientists were there in 1820?  How many black Canadians do you see in Tim Horton’s commercials?  Not many, because the image of Canada those commercials are conjuring is an anachronistic image of the cultural essence of Canada as the small town arena and hockey as a democratic cultural glue.  Now, there is some truth to that picture (I lived it in fact) but it is only one fragment of a much more complex cultural picture, and it leaves out of the frame everyone who cannot afford to play hockey or who does not care about it.

When we put the deconstruction of the pumpkin latte in this context its claim is not so silly.   What makes it seem silly is the micro-focus on a drink, and peoples’ assumptions that something so trivial as a cup of coffee cannot be so pregnant with offensive symbolic meaning.  But a cross abstracted from context  is just two pieces of wood intersecting at a right angle. What could be more banal?  But put that banal construction in a Christian Church and it becomes symbolic of the suffering and redemption of humanity.  The same general process of the inflation of symbolic value is at work in the Tom Horton’s commercial.  When set in the context of the construction of Canadian culture around spaces and practices that are predominantly white, the symbolic value of the coffee cup rises, and it can be a fit subject for cultural criticism.  So:  seemingly insignificant elements of a culture can have profound symbolic importance, and the value of work that brings this importance to light is that it opens a space for critical reflection and the democratic construction of new cultures in which more voices are heard and new practices born.

This critique is liable to get people’s backs up, because they sometimes think that if the symbolic value of something which they enjoy has racist implications, then they are being called racists for enjoying it.  Sometimes claims of cultural appropriation are made with an air of self-righteousness moralism that makes them easy targets for rejection on these defensive grounds.  It is certainly not the case that every white person who wears dreadlocks is a racist any more than heterosexual white transvestites are sexist for wearing women’s clothes.  In matters of politics, intentions matter as much as actions, and sometimes the intention is just to look a certain way, or respectfully (and playfully) participate in a practice that one finds valuable even though participation demands a certain degree of transgression of cultural or gender-boundaries.  Sometimes a dreadlock is just a dreadlock.

But sometimes  not, too, and again it will be context and intention that determines the political meaning.  Wearing dreadlocks because you love reggae is one thing, going in blackface to a hallowe’en party is another.  Wearing blackface has an undeniably racist history; reggae, while rooted in a trenchant critique of the slave trade and colonial domination, nevertheless (at least in its original expressions) preaches a universal set of values:  peace between nations and cultures and the equality and dignity of all people. Burning Spear’s magnificent song The Invasion begins with the line “They take us away from Africa, with the intention to steal our culture,”  but continues with the invocation of the need for “Love in Africa, Love in America, Love in Canada”  i.e., not retreat into a closed community but openness towards difference and reconciliation (but without forgetting the history of violence, either).

So:  the problem of cultural appropriation is real, but becomes pernicious only when it involves the permanent appropriation of essential elements of a group’s conditions of life and self-understanding, as in the history of colonial domination.  The aim of opposing cultural appropriation should not be to prevent real communication, inter-cultural dialogue, and the creation of new forms of expression and identity, but to ensure that all members of all cultures have secure access to that which they require to live freely.

Against the Politics of Banning and Apology

Unfortunately, the goal of cultural critics is not always to widen the space for novel cultural interactions  and inventions but to justify banning and silencing and to demand apologies for arguments and theories that give offense.   It would be wrong to argue that there are never grounds to ban certain forms of speech or representation. However, the bar must be set very, very high:  1) There must be demonstrated and pervasive harm to an identifiable group and not a merely asserted harm to a random individual or individuals claiming to speak for the whole group, and 2) harm must be understood as equivalent to a physical barrier preventing the group from exercising its full range of life-capacities.  So, it would be reasonable to ban Ku Klux Klan outfits from a university campus, because the Ku Klux Klan is inseparable from a history of racist violence, and any black student who saw people walking around in Klan gear would reasonably fear for their safety, and this fear could well prevent them from freely enjoying campus spaces and feeling safe enough to think and study.  Racist jokes, on the other hand, while offensive, should not be banned, but their teller challenged, because it is not always the intention of the teller of racist jokes to promote racial intolerance. Often times the teller does not think that they are racist, because they think that humour changes the literal meaning and implications of words– a not unreasonable position that must be answered with a reasoned critique. The ensuing argument can thus be a moment of productive political engagement and education rather than the regressive alternative:  censorship imposed by the ruling powers.

This argument applies with double force to the lamentable and frankly reactionary practice of trying to silence theories and political positions which might give offense to some group by banning speakers from campuses or trying to control the content of courses.  Academic freedom is not a liberal platitude but has been, overall, a force of progressive change, and a crucial contributing factor to why there is any political criticism on campus at all.  There would be no women’s studies department without the struggles of women academics, but those academics would never have survived the wrath of the boy’s club without the protection of academic freedom, because it gave them the space and time necessary to defend the integrity and value of their work from charges that it was intellectually weak.  There is no doubt who will be swept out the door if academic freedom is fatally compromised by misplaced political outrage and moralistic whinging:  feminists, queer theorists, Marxists, and critical race theorists as well as heterodox critics of the history of science will be gone and universities returned to what they were formerly:  transmission belts of the ruling ideas of the age, taught to the sons (and only much later) daughters of the ruling class.

Thus, activists and critics need to recover the value of political argument.  If there are fault lines in a society, then it follow as a direct consequence that there will be groups on the other side of an issue, and they will not go away unless the fault line is  sealed through some sort of fundamental social change.  Silencing the opponent through whatever means has never worked (even revolutionary attempts to ‘liquidate the class enemy’ have never succeeded).  There is no alternative but to argue (not only argue, obviously) and convince the opponent to change their position.  Hegel is correct:  the conceit that refuses to argue impedes political progress because the “achieved community of minds”  which our rational nature makes possible depends upon the “power of the negative,” his name for the ability of philosophical thinking to detect and overcome contradictions.  If the other side does not speak, the contradiction is hidden from view but not resolved.  The strategy of banning and silencing is therefore self-undermining and must be rejected save in the most extreme cases of overt advocacy of violent assault on vulnerable groups.


However, rejecting a self-undermining politics of the silencing (but not defeat) of the opposed position leaves open the more difficult question of how the positive programs of movements against different forms of oppression can be brought together in some sort of coherent political synthesis.  A coherent political synthesis would allow for the elaboration of shared goals without requiring the submerging of particular histories or subordinating the particular identities to an imposed agenda.  It is crucial to remember that the emergence of radical feminism, Black Power, the American Indian Movement, and the gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1960’s was in part made necessary by the woeful failure of the Marxist left to acknowledge the political reality of different histories of oppression.  Of course, these movements were made necessary by those histories, and their successes owe to the intelligence and energy of their organizers.  At the same time, part of the reason why these movements had to split off from the Marxist left was due to a mechanical and dogmatic insistence on the “primacy of class.”  There is a non-dogmatic argument to be made for the primacy of class, but I am not going to make it here.  Instead, I want to conclude with a different account of how solidarity might be built in the present, which draws on some core ideas of Marxism, but re-interprets them in light of contemporary political realities.

The core problem of building real solidarity is how to identify real common interests and articulate them in such a way that their pursuit does not demand subordination of particular identities to another identity presenting itself as universal. The historical problem of the dogmatic Marxist approach was that, from the perspective of a radical feminist or black power militant, class was itself an identity as particular as the Marxist charged feminism or black power with being.  If a common interest is to be found, it has to be deeper than class.  I think we find this deeper ground in the idea of a shared set of socio-cultural human needs whose satisfaction allows anyone to realize their latent human power of living as a social-self-conscious agent; i.e., a person who has the power to shape their own identity rather than than be dominated as an object of oppressive power.  When we focus on needs first, it becomes apparent  that oppression is essentially about demonizing specific groups of people and using that demonization to justify the fact that they are systematically deprived of one or more of the set of fundamental human natural and social needs.   They are oppressed because they can live as full social self-conscious agents, and they cannot, not because they are not essentially social self-conscious agents, but because they are deprived of that which they require to live as such.

So, to give only one example, when women were denied the vote (their need to participate in the determination of the laws they were forced to obey) sexist ideology argued that women lacked the intellectual capacities to effectively participate in government.  When African Americans were denied the same means of satisfying their need to participate, racist ideology argued that they were similarly intellectually unfit for self-government.  Here we have two distinct groups denied the same means of satisfying a political need  by reference to a false construction of their nature and possibilities.  The details of the histories of their respective deprivation differ, but the cause is the same:  the system-need of the ruling class to ensure the conditions of its own rule.  If the ruling class is primarily white and male, then the demands of women and blacks for political power is a threat, and racist and sexist ideologies a means of warding off that threat.  Solidarity in the struggle can be constructed by appeal to the shared need, while the specific identity of the group is preserved because they orient their contribution to that struggle on the basis of their own particular experience of the general causes of the deprivation.

This example abstracts from a great deal of complexity of the contemporary political terrain, but I believe that if people examine fundamental problems of structural oppression, they will discover at the root of that oppression deprivation of needs that are also felt by other groups.  I have defined and defended a theory of what fundamental human needs are in two previous books, Democratic Society and Human Needs and Materialist Ethics and Life-value.  The practical implication of the argument is that all the particular histories of oppresion converge on the control of natural resources, social wealth, and social institutions by a ruling class.  Solidarity in struggle is rooted not in everyone identifying themselves as working class against the ruling class, but in all oppressed and exploited groups articulating the specific ways in which they experience the deprivation of their needs, and working together to reclaim the resources and institutions that can satisfy them.

Politics cannot ensure that no one is ever offended, and if it tries to do so, it will degenerate into irrelevant squabbling (or worse, demands that the authorities solve the problem through repressive measures).  Progressive politics is about people seizing the power to solve their own problems by changing the system at the foundations.  It would be best if this were a simple and swift problem to solve, but it is not.  Because it is not, and because opponents cannot be wished out of existence or completely destroyed, the patience of argument will always have to be part of the tools of struggle.

And Popper Thought Marxism Was Unscientific

The Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper famously argued that Marxism was not a science because the laws of history that it claims to discover are not falsifiable.  For example, Marx argued that capitalist crises would be recurrent and ultimately unsolvable, because the rate of profit trended to fall as capitalism matured.  While there is evidence to support that claim about the cyclical nature of crises and the falling rate of profit, their links to revolutionary political changes– the real crux of the theory, since Marxism is a revolutionary theory– are ideological.  If the last crisis did not do capitalism in, then there is no inconsistency, within Marxist theory, to shift the time frame, and so on, ad infinitum, endlessly delaying the moment when the theory could be empirically tested and falsified.  But a theory that cannot in principle be falsified is not, according to Popper’s definition, a science, but ideology, an attempt to make the world become something on the basis of (spurious) claims about what it is.

Popper’s arguments always troubled some Marxists more than others.  Marxists like me, who were moved more by the vision of human potentiality that opens up beyond the horizon of capitalist alienation were untroubled by his arguments, because it always seemed clear that Marxism was an ethical-political conception of a way of human life and not a scientific proof of the causal mechanism by which human history would move there.  That said, elements of Marx’s theory, like the definition of classes in terms of their relationship to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, are certainly empirically verifiable or falsifiable social scientific theories that can be debated independently of any active allegiance to a revolutionary movement, so Popper’s argument is true in relation to the overall project, but seems false in relation to at least some of the parts.

Still, whatever truth there is in his critique of the scientificty of Marxism would apply in equal measure to orthodox economics, which trumpets its scientific bona fides as grounds for heeding its advice, but whose ideological agenda is obvious.  If Marxism aims to undermine the legitimacy of the capitalist system, orthodox economics aims to support its legitimacy.

A case in point is a a recent article by Chris Sarlo, a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute and a professor of economics at Nippising University in North Bay.  Sarlo’s argument is that recent claims about rising inequality are “overblown.”  He supports this conclusion on the basis of two interrelated claims:  1)  income is not the best measure of inequality, because b)  “some people can consume substantially more than their income by borrowing or by receiving gifts. Others consume much less than their income if they save a significant portion or if they pay down debt.”  Reading this claim as a meaningful response to the social implications of income inequality tests the limits of the principle of charitable interpretation.  It is really just changing the subject so as to draw our attention away from the problem, not providing a solution to it.

In no way– and obviously in no way–  does it call into question the mass of long term statistical evidence that shows deeply problematic-  from the perspective of democracy– rising inequality within rich nations like Canada (which is Sarlo’s focus)  and much less that between the Global North and the Global South.  It does not do so for this simple reason:  whatever inequalities we find at the level of income will be replicated at the level of credit markets and savings (called “investment,”  when rich people do it).

Is Sarlo to have us believe  that social problems caused by rising income inequality (including worse health outcomes for those on the lower income scales and the undermining of the social basis of equal value of democratic citizenship rights) are solved because working people can borrow a hundred thousand dollars to by a house, while a rich person could borrow 10 million? Clearly, the credit worthiness of individuals is a factor in their access to credit markets, and their worthiness is going to be determined by their income and net worth.  How, then, is socially meaningful inequality mitigated  by credit.?  The higher your networth, the more debt you can take on and carry.

Moreover, the implications of indebtedness is affected by income inequality.  Donald Trump can declare a loss of 900 million dollars, and carry on his lavish, buffoonish life.   Meanwhile, working people caught up in the sub-prime mortgage crisis lost their homes when their payments re-set to levels they could not afford. Prior to the on-set of the crisis one could have said:  the net worth of new home owners went up and this increase mitigated the tendency towards inequality.  But then it all collapsed in a house of cards and broken dreams and foreclosures, and income inequality is the reason why.  The rich can pay their debts (or pay someone to have them endlessly restructured so they can delay paying them) as well as carry much higher debt loads.   So– let me be gentle– it is at least unclear how shifting the focus as Sarlo suggests we do uncovers evidence that socially meaningful inequality is not rising spectacularly, and not threatening (if it has not already undermined)  the cohesiveness of existing liberal-capitalist states.

Sarlo would respond that if we do shift our focus from income to consumption, we find much less growth in inequality:

If consumption is a better reflection of a household’s standard of living, what can we say about the degree of inequality of those living standards over time? A new Fraser Institute study examines the inequality of consumption in Canada over the period 1969 to 2009 (the last year of available data). After adjusting for household size, which has changed quite dramatically over the past four decades, the study finds that consumption inequality has barely changed since 1969. Using a popular measure, inequality of consumption is up only three per cent in 40 years.

But this can be attributed to other factors which do not support the overall thrust of Sardo’s argument. If household sizes remain more or less the same, prices go down for some (low-end luxuries) and the demand of rich households for consumables does not massively exceed those of poor households of the same size, then the rate of growth of consumer spending in rich and poor households could remain more or less constant over the decades, as the study claims to find.  But this proves nothing substantial about the egalitarian nature of our societies.  Rich people just have a lot more money to do other things with than spend it on consumer goods.  What they in fact do with it is invest it to make more money for themselves, while working people must work for wages that have been stagnant for 40 years.

What is really going on in here is an attempt to blow smoke in the eyes of people who are worried that the legitimacy of capitalism is being undermined by rising inequality.  This worry received new impetus from Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century.  The book proved beyond a shadow of a statistical doubt that the sort of inequality a democratic society needs to worry about has been rising steadily since the 1970s.  The issue is not income in the abstract (if we did nothing with money but pile it up in a room it would not matter how much money anyone made).  But we do not:  we use money to purchase that which we need, and–crucially– in capitalism, to buy other people’s labour:  income is really power over other people.  Hence, rising income inequality means rising inequality in the relative power of those who live off of their (increasingly valuable) capital as opposed to those who try to live off of their (stagnant or falling)  wages.

Piketty’s conclusion is stark for those who believe that the liberal-capitalist form of social organization is just:  “When the rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy (…as is likely to be the case in the twenty-first century) then it logically follows that inherited wealth grows faster than output and income … Under such conditions, it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from  a life-time of labour … and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels– levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies.”(p.26)  Keeping our eyes from focussing upon the Potemkin village built out of platitudes about equal opportunity and the long run justice of capitalism is the entire function of arguments like Sarlo’s.  Democratic societies are supposed to be self-governing, and the mechanism of self-government is decisions freely arrived at through the deliberation of equals.  If a small group lives off their investments and controls the labour of those who must find work, then that sort of deliberative self-determination is impossible, and its invocation as a justifying value a sham.