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The Scourge of Inequality

Structured social inequality, which continues to exist regardless of democratic institutions and the myth of equality of opportunity is .more than any other set  of factors, responsible for for the problems we consider serious: violence, crime, community disorganization, war, distrust, apathy. terrorism, greed and general unhappiness.  

That worldly philosopher, Aristotle,  when he looked at Politics,  thought that communities (i.e. cities, states, societies) could only be orderly and peaceful if their citizens lived in a condition of equality with one another.  Those who fell below or rose above the mean condition could not be counted on to participate in ways that served the common good.  Both the lower and the upper classes are incapable of community, but it seemed to me that Aristotle reserved his harshest criticisms for those who had more (e.g. more wealth, more power, more prestige, more privilege, more beauty, more friends, more education, etc..)  Aristotle does not say much about women, children, strangers, or slaves; i get the impression that his thought is confined to thinking about native born, free born, adult males.

"Separated from our nature by instruments of our own creation:*"

 All civilizations and nearly all existing societies have some form of structured inequality.  Men and women follow different rules, children are "protected" and governed, chiefs and warlords and presidents and executives and kings have power, privilege or wealth (and usually all three) greater than other men.  These conditions seem "natural" to many of us.  And it well might, for a Vico contended, society is our "second" nature which often is able to completely disguise or change whatever our "first" nature might have been.  Science, the systematic, logical, empirical analysis of nature, has been of far less help than we might have hoped since scientists are also products of stratified social systems.

I mentioned that nearly all societies are stratified.  Miraculously, some unstratified societies did somehow survive into the 19th and early 20th centuries where they could be documented by anthropologists and other visitors   Members of these tiny societies saw themselves as "family," children were treated kindly and never punished, women lived in near equality with men, "authority" was widely dispersed and carried few privileges,  what few material possessions there were were equally shared.  These societies survived for 200,000 thousand years.and provided  more than a hundred thousand adequate communities  for the families of of many millions of  homo s. sapiens.

Mystics and sages of every age and culture have spoken with one voice about our "natural" condition.  We are "the image of God," we have a "Buddha nature"  We were meant for the forest, for Eden, for paradise, for Nirvana, for Heaven  How can i look at the image of God with the contempt with which i sometimes view my fellow human beings?  How can i not share everything i have with them or not expect them to share everything they have with me.

"Goaded by the Spirit of Hierarchy*"

We have such nice ways of putting it in democracies  -- "I should try to improve myself."  "I should make a contribution to society," i should do my best."  "Competition is the mechanism by which the world's work gets done most effectively."  Lets start with that.  What is the evidence that competition is a good way to get work done?  So far as i have been able to determine, it does not exist.  Contrarily, competition is wasteful and it tends to evolve into the worst kind of conflict.**

We like to describe various aspects of life as a pyramid, large at the base and coming to a point at the tip.  I do not know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; but i do know how many humans can dance there: none.  For the pinnacle is so precarious a perch that its occupant has no time or room for dancing.  He (or she -- but isn't it almost always he) must guard against those who would replace him at the top.  This is why we talk of the "thin veneer of civilization," we know of what violence those threatened are capable.

"Rotten to Perfection"*

We are told by the mystics and sages that we are perfect.  We are told by everyone else that we are not.  And we are very lucky if we know someone who is a sage or a mystic.  What is the spectacle of perfect beings trying to perfect themselves? especially if they are "goaded by the spirit of hierarchy."  "Putrid" is probably too strong a word, so i really do not know what Burke meant by "rotten to perfection,:  For some reason or other the Peter principle*** comes to mind,  like Icarus, if we fly too high the glue will not hold, and we are always being encouraged to fly too high.  If we follow the Peter principle we will all be "rotten" at what we do.  The putrification of perfection is the result of trying to perfect perfection.

Inequality or Poverty?

A rising tide raises all ships.  Wrong.  The poor are better off today than they ever have been in the history of the world.  Wrong.
Well, at least the previous statement is true for the modern industrial democracies.  Probably still wrong.  But suppose these statements were true.  Would the problems of hierarchy be solved if those at the bottom were well fed, well housed, healthy, well respected and with plenty of discretionary income.  I don't think so.  Inequality is a much more serious problem than poverty.  People have lived, do live, and will live in poverty if they chose poverty voluntarily or if they see their poverty as an unavoidable condition and not one imposed on them from above.  "Religion," read one bumper sticker "is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."  If the rich can't help being rich and if they can't do anything to ease my poverty, why should i blame them.  But this ideology has outlived whatever usefulness it might once have had..

In the three thousand plus counties which make up the United States, it if often true that inequality and poverty go together, but not always.  There are many  poor counties which have low gini indices**** so it is possible to look at the effects of poverty and the effects of inequality separately.  It appears that inequality has a higher correlation with various social problems than does poverty..  This finding has recently been confirmed by studies in Europe.  A poor county which has a low gini index has less crime than a rich county which has a high score.

Symbol using inventors of the negative.

But we are symbol users who can imagine the non-existence of inequality,  We can say no.  We can voice our "no" individually, and we can voice it collectively,  We can imagine the non-existence of what exists and through relevant action or non-action, bring it to pass..  It helps if there is some good reason to do that.  If i don't like ugliness then i shouldn't like inequality.  If i am unwilling to do anything about inequality, i should just accept the ugliness i see around me

* I am organizing this discussion around the last three elements of Kenneth Burke's "definition of man" as "...the symbol using, creating, and misusing animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his nature by instruments of his own construction, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten to perfection.

**Unlike competition which is best confined to amateur sports and can cause problems even there, some conflict is probably inevitable and necessary.  But conflict can be managed nonviolently where the added element of competition is not present. 

*** In any organization a role occupant tends to rise until he reaches a level at which he is incompetent.

**** A widely used indicator of income and wealth inequality.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 17th, 2012 08:22 am (UTC)
Inequality is a much more serious problem than poverty.

This is so hard to get across to people. The Equality Trust's website (and the book that inspired it, The Spirit Level) is packed with info on this fact. Psychological studies keep on showing that even implied hierarchy negatively affects decision making, empathy, and co-operation, shutting down potentially fruitful avenues of creative thinking.

Apr. 17th, 2012 04:08 pm (UTC)
How marvelous!
Thank you! Thank you!
Apr. 17th, 2012 01:17 pm (UTC)
Some good points here and there when you stay on the track of inequality and don't wander into your bias regarding religion, but, since you went there, I'll go there too and say I am not much worried about dancing on the head of pin or perfection, but, I would like to be a better man, warts and all, and make more of a contribution to the community.
Apr. 17th, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
The simple societies were strongly connected to the spirit world and acknowledged powers greater than their own. They were certainly religious and they bore their religion(s) gracefully. Hierarchies came to use religion as one of the means of social control (thus the bumper sticker). Jesus is one of those who ignored and subtly opposed hierarchy and inequality (The last shall be first, chief among you should be the servant of all, if you have two cloaks give one away, etc.). His followers haven't always been so consistent.
Apr. 17th, 2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
Yes, I know Jesus opposed subtly (I think more than subtly)hierarchy and inequality. One of differences I have with your perspective however is that you write from time to time on the failings of the followers of Christ (the whole of Christianity actually, i.e. "myth" to use your word)with little mention of the failings of followers in other religions which is the common "sport" of our day and the not very creative way of attacking Christainty. Further, I don't see much balance or tolerance, particularly from one who claims to be open and progressive in thought else you might highlight occasionally some of the good which has come from Christianity, unless of course, you think there has been little good. I realize this is your bias, bent and prejudice and this certainly is your right to express your beliefs, dogma, yourself any way you choose but I do find it all a bit paradoxical. I have no interest in defending Christainity for it has stood the test of the centuries, but I do suggest a little balance. All religions have human elements and are subject to questions and doubts and uncertainties just as all people are, even when people try to dance on the head of a pin with whatever slant they embrace at certain times of their lives.
Apr. 17th, 2012 06:39 pm (UTC)
Just two points. I hope this is explanation and not defense. I am certainly the least good judge of my own biases and admit that i do defend some religions (animism, Buddhism -- i do not consider Taoism, at least my version of it, to be a religion) more than others.

1) I was raised in a Christian home in a "Christian" country. The activities of Americans and Christians reflect on me. If i lived in Egypt (like my former colleague Ibrahim, who has been twice imprisoned under Mubarak) i would say little in criticism of the misuse and misinterpretation of Christianity and much about the misuse and misinterpretation of Islam. Islam has plenty of critics in the United States, it does need me to criticize it.

2) As a follower of "the historical Jesus" and the work of The Jesus Seminar, i am convinced that the Church(es) from the very beginning have distorted the message and life of Jesus. For me, the key to understanding Jesus is The Sermon on the Mount and the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. I would feel this way even if it were not these sayings about which there is least disagreement among Biblical scholars.
Apr. 17th, 2012 06:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing your perspective.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )



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