In one of those cases where satire cannot trump cold hard fact, the power brokers and heavy thinkers who gathered at an Alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month expressed great concern about the danger that growing inequality poses to social stability everywhere. As well they might.
Strictly speaking, "widening income disparities" was only one of 10 issues flagged by the Forum's Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014report, along with "a lack of values in leadership" and "the rapid spread of misinformation online." But a couple of concerns on the list -- "persistent structural unemployment" and "the diminishing confidence in economic policies" -- were variations on the same theme. Two or three other topics were related to income disparity only a little less directly
In case you didn't make it to Davos last month (my invitation evidently got lost in the mail this year ... as it has every year, come to think of it), another gathering this summer will cover much of the same ground. The 18th World Congress of the International Sociological Association -- meeting in Yokohama, Japan, in mid-July -- has as its theme "Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology." The scheduling of their events notwithstanding, it was the sociologists who were really farsighted about the issue of growing inequality, not the "Davos men." The ISA announced the theme for its congress as early as December 2010.
And the conversation in Japan is sure to be more focused and substantive. A lot of business networking goes on during the World Economic Forum. By some accounts, the topic of inequality figured more prominently in the news releases than in actual discussions among participants. It's almost as if all of Bono's efforts at Davos were for nought.
Available a solid six months before the sociologists put their heads together in Yokohama, Goran Therborn's The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) ought to steer the public's thinking into deeper waters than anything that can be reached with a reductive notion like "widening income disparities." Money provides one measure of inequality, but so do biomedical statistics, which record what Therborn, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, calls "vital inequality." (Income disparities fall under the heading of "resource inequalities," along with disparities in access to nutrition, education, and other necessities of life.)
A third, less quantifiable matter is "existential inequality," which Therborn defines as "the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development." A big-tent concept of Therborn's own making, existential inequality covers the limitations and humiliations imposed by racism, sexism, and homophobia but also the experience of "people with handicaps and disabilities or just the indigent overlorded by poorhouse wardens or condescending socio-medical powerholders," among others.
While analytically distinct, the three forms of inequality tend to be mutually reinforcing, often in perfectly understandable but no less miserable ways: "Nationwide U.S. surveys of the last decade show that the lower the income of their parents, the worse is the health of the children, whether measured in overall health assessment, limitations on activity, school absence for illness, emergency ward visits, or hospital days."
The differences in health between the offspring of well-off and low-income parents "have been measured from the child's age of two, and the differentials then grow with age." A study of mortality rates among men in Central and East European countries shows a pattern of higher education corresponding to a longer life; men with only a primary education not only died earlier but were more prone to longstanding illnesses. (The patterns among women were comparable "but differentials are smaller, less than half the male average.")
Such inequalities within countries look small compared to those between countries, of course -- and Therborn piles up the examples of so many varieties of inequality from such diverse places that it becomes, after a while, either numbing or unbearable. Generalization is hazardous, but the pattern seems to be that a considerable variety of inequalities, both inter- and intranational, has sharpened over the past 30 years or so. Not even the author's own country of origin, Sweden -- so long the promised land for social democrats -- has been spared. Therborn's study of income developments in the Stockholm Metropolitan area between 1991 and 2010 showed that "the less affluent 80 percent of the population saw their income share decline, while the most prosperous 10 percent had their share augmented from 25 to 32 percent."
Furthermore, the share of the income that top tenth earned from playing the Stockholm Stock Exchange grew 282 percent over the same period. In Sweden as elsewhere, "the top side of intra-national inequality is driven primarily by capital expansion and concentration, and that at the bottom by (politically alterable) policies to keep the poor down and softened up to accept anything."
It seems unlikely that the CEOs, financiers, and politicians at Davos ever had it put to them quite like that. But Therborn seems equally unhappy with his own discipline, which he thinks has somehow managed to dodge thinking about inequality as such.
"Among the fifty odd Research Committees of the International Sociological Association," he writes, "there is not one focused on inequality." The closest approximation is the one on "Social Stratification," which he says "has mainly been interested in intergenerational social mobility."
That mobility having been, for the most part, upwards. But the distance from the bottom of society to its top verges ever more on the dystopian. In a rare flourish, Therborn invokes the alternative: "the positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her abilities."
To reach it, or even to move in that direction, implies a battle. "Nobody knows how it will end," he concludes. "Which side will you be on?"
I don't think he's asking just the people who will be there in Yokohama this summer.
This month is the largely overlooked, and completely uncelebrated, centennial of the passing of the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the one establishing a progressive, national income tax. And ever since, people have been writing letters to the editor to remind everyone that a progressive income tax was one of the demands of The Communist Manifesto. (For full effect, that last sentence should have been written in all caps and ended with at least three exclamation points.)
The figures whose story Isaac William Martin tells in Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (Oxford University Press) often made the same point. And they were quite correct, though I must fault them for neglecting to mention that the Manifesto included an equally sinister call for free public education and the end of child labor. Maybe people would complain less about the cost of health care if their kids had gainful employment in a coal mine.
But not to quibble. Significant opposition to the 16th began, not when it went into effect, but a few years later, under the double impact of World War I (which increased government expenditures) and Prohibition (which dried up a source of tax revenue). Martin, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, identifies five waves of protest, expressed through calls to repeal the amendment, to reduce the debt burden of the wealthiest taxpayers, or to fix a maximum rate of 25 percent.
The wonky particulars count for less than the passion of the movement. It was, and is, a crusade, for which a tract such as Frank Chodorov’s The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil (1954) seemed not the least bit overwrought. Most of the leaders and organizations have fallen into obscurity. (Chodorov may be an exception given his place in the early history of The National Review.) But they established a tradition of social protest that, though once marginal, now effectively dominates a major political party.
Calling it a tradition of social protest seems counterintuitive, if not provocative, and Martin is surely looking for trouble with his title’s allusion to Poor People’s Movements by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, which has become something like the Necronomicon of Tea Party mythology.
But Rich People’s Movements has a serious argument: Martin contends that the waves of anti-tax activism over the past century have borrowed heavily from the tactics and rhetorical legacies of the Populist and women’s movements, among others. They have been vocal and visible in ways that extremely wealthy people tend not to need to be. Simply at the level of cost and benefit, campaigning for the abolition of income tax would rarely be in the interest of a billionaire.
It is quieter, easier, and more effective to use various loopholes, or to promote legislation amounting to custom-made loopholes. (If a member of Congress fails to cooperate, just buy another one.) By contrast, the American Taxpayers League of the 1920s had organizers who roamed around creating clubs for bankers and small businessmen -- the Wobblies of the bosses, so to speak. Rightward-leaning businesswomen and society ladies who joined the Liberty Belles in the 1950s violated the law by refusing to collect and pay the withholding taxes for their employees and servants. Some of them had learned the principles of civil disobedience from the suffragists of an earlier generation.
And in one of numerous “how the hell did nobody else remember this?” moments the book inspires, the reader learns of the California T (for "tax") Parties of 1962, which “drew hundreds of people together to hear inspiring speeches, watch educational films, and honor [fellow anti-tax] activists.” They also sang a rousing anthem, with the lines
You and I cannot relax
We must repeal the income tax!
Recruits for these groups tended to come, not from the wealthy and powerful, but from people in a slightly lower tax bracket -- the merely well-off and comfortable, to put it one way. Martin shows convincingly that the movement’s periods of growth were triggered by a policy threat, i.e., when “the loss of economic or personal security is attributable to a real or anticipated change in public policy.” Then blame for the dread or panic can be focused on specific policy makers, creating an opportunity for political entrepreneurs to organize a movement.
The reader will no doubt be able to think of various in American politics over the past five years that seem to fit Martin’s generalization. So rather than belabor the point, I want to raise some questions that have come to mind about Rich People’s Movements. It is, by the way, a very lucid book, written as if the author expected it to have readers. Imagine that.
One thing conspicuously missing from the book is the phenomenon of tax resistance of the kind that gets in the news every so often -- say, during a standoff with some guy with a bunker full of automatic weapons, snakebite kits, and 100 pounds of beef jerky, plus a suitable quantity of Gatorade, as per his interpretation of the Revelation of Saint John. The groups Martin chronicles tried to craft legislation that would alter or abolish the income tax. The survivalist or paramilitary right tends to be equally obsessed with the other unholy monstrosity created in 1913, the Federal Reserve system, and longs for a much more dramatic reckoning than repeal of the 16th Amendment.
By e-mail I asked Martin if he’d given any thought to the extremely hardcore anti-tax people. He explained that he had defined his project “to encompass movements that make explicit policy demands, within the framework of American political institutions, to change the income tax or the estate tax in ways that would categorically benefit the rich,” while the Posse Comitatus or militia groups “deny that the income tax was ever legitimately enacted in the first place, and often deny the legitimacy of the federal government altogether.”
The one significant point of possible similarity between the groups Martin studied and what he calls “a revolutionary movement that denies the legitimacy of the U.S. government altogether, or a movement that embraces the tax strike as a revolutionary or separatist tactic” might be the role of policy threats in spurring them to action. The rise of the militia groups in the mid-1990s coincided with the Clinton tax increases and health care efforts, for example.
But the more absolutist political entrepreneurs did not focus on alliance-building and policy-crafting that are necessary when activists “orient themselves towards making concrete policy proposals,” as the activists treated in Rich People’s Movements did. Then again, alliance-building presupposes a certain level of mutual trust, which I take it is in fairly short supply on the paramilitary right, so target practice would probably count as the more appropriate use of resources.
I also wondered what difference being a sociologist, rather than a political scientist or a historian, might have made to Martin’s project. The borders between disciplines don’t always correspond to distinctions among the objects of study, of course. But it seemed worth asking.
“Sociology gave me the questions,” he answered. “Where do these social movements come from? Why, in this instance, unlike almost every other movement described in the literature, are people explicitly protesting on behalf of others who are even richer than themselves? Who are these people, anyway? I think it is my background in sociology that primed me to pay attention to protest movements (including grassroots organizing, civil disobedience, and so forth) as interesting phenomena in their own right. I think it is unlikely that most political scientists or political historians would have lavished as much attention on the recreating the internal dynamics of obscure movement organizations -- not because of any theoretical blinders, but simply because they are not primed by their disciplines to be as interested in those organizations, until they happen to intersect with the doings of, say, Congress.”
Speaking of Congress, it’s striking how closely the rhetoric of 20th-century anti-income tax movements corresponds to that of today’s Teapublicans. Only the names have been changed to update the guilty. No doubt you’d get wild applause at an American Taxpayers Union meeting in the 1920s by denouncing Calvin Coolidge for his use of the 16th Amendment to impose Bolshevism.
But the events of the past few weeks have clearly strained relations between business-friendly politicos of the pragmatic sort and today’s descendants of the League and the Liberty Belles.
“The alliance was always shaky,” Martin said when I asked about recent developments. “Movement people always made the establishment business conservatives a little nervous.” Still, crusaders against the income tax had their uses, if only by making the policies of establishment business conservatives appear centrist by contrast. The latter eventually began directing funds to the “grassroots” groups, given their value as shock troops.
“But [the politicos] never controlled the grass-roots organizations on their right flank,” Martin continued. “Those waxed and waned according to their own dynamics; and part of the reason those organizations sometimes sounded crazy was that they were staffed by true believers whose ideas, at least sometimes and in some respects, really were extreme. And when those organizations and their true believers took over some critical parts of the Republican Party, it paved the way for a clash between pragmatists who control the money and the true believers who control the mailing lists.”
Here the opposition between “money” and “mailing list” ought not to be construed too literally. If you have one, you can usually get the other. What the true believers really have, besides fervor, is what Martin calls tradition, “a name for practices that persist across generations because they are passed down by learning and teaching.… I don't think the right differs in this respect from the left, and I think this sort of intergenerational transmission of practical habits and ways of organizing is also true in other movements.”
Tradition, so understood, is the slow work of building forces; it is the education that takes the form of action, and vice versa. “Today's organizers learned how to recruit members from someone who learned it from someone and so on,” Martin told me, “and you could follow that thread of teaching and learning all the way back for at least a century, even if you'd find that the practices changed and evolved a bit along the way, and even if no one remembers more than one or two generations back.”
Rich People’s Movements is a valuable study of how that happens, and it deserves study -- even, perhaps especially, by people who do not think of the 16th Amendment as the root of all evil.
No reader of The Sociological Imagination (1959) will soon forget C. Wright Mills's “translations” of a few passages from The Social System by Talcott Parsons, one of the most eminent American social scientists of the day. Here's a representative selection from The Social System, in the original Parsonian idiom:
“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions. Furthermore, this attachment to common values, while it may fit the immediate gratificational needs of the actor, always has a ‘moral’ aspect in that to some degree this conformity defines the ‘responsibility’ of the actor in the wider, that is, social action systems in which he participates.”
And here is how Mills put the same thoughts into demotic English:
“When people share the same values, they tend to behave in accordance with the way they expect one another to behave. Moreover, they often treat such conformity as a very good thing – even when it seems to go against their immediate interests.”
To get the full effect, you have to see Mills perform the operation upon much larger chunks of ore – a solid page of Parsons, massy and leaden, followed by its rendering into three or four spry statements of the relatively obvious. “I do not pretend that my translation is excellent,” Mills writes, “but only that in the translation no meaning is lost.” He later quotes a suggestion by Edmund Wilson that social scientists get help from their colleagues in the English department.
That advice dates the book considerably, of course. Michael Billig, the author of Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press) is a professor of social sciences at Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, and the examples he cites come chiefly from sociology and psychology. But the techniques and strategies he describes work just as well in humanities and education departments, among others.
Billig’s title is sardonic, but the text itself, for the most part, is not. I half expected an annotated scrapbook of scholarly bloviation -- and it does give you a feel for the state of the art. But description and complaint are secondary to Billig’s much more interesting effort to understand the purpose and enabling conditions of successful bad writing. For despite the note of sarcasm, even the book’s title is serious: people do not come into the world knowing how to be verbose and evasive, or to prop up a shaky idea with resonant jargon. It has to be learned, and there must be incentives to learn it.
In the 1890s, William James complained that trendy psychological jargon of his day, such as “apperception,” served little purpose beyond, as Billig puts it, “enabl[ing] professors to be professorial” so as “to impress the impressionable.” The exotic word was assumed to be exact and rigorous, but apperception, James said, meant “nothing more than the act of taking a thing into the mind” -- an act more precisely characterized in already available terms such as “assimilation,” “elaboration,” or “interpretation,” among others. James was ambivalent about the then-emerging tendency toward ever-narrower academic specialization. But he seemed to think (in some moods anyway) that the need to communicate outside one’s professional peer group might limit the linguistic damage.
What he could not foresee, as Billig says, is the explosive and continuing growth of higher education as a whole (“the numbers of tertiary education teachers across the word rose from just under 6.5 million in 1999 to over 9.5 million in 2007”) and the paradoxical effects of disciplines becoming “too big to control and too powerful to avoid.” Within a given field of study are “communities or subdisciplinary tribes” using their niche vocabularies not just to communicate research but to establish affiliations and establish institutional power.
“For most journals in the social sciences,” Billig writes, and the point can be generalized further, “there will be some sets of terminology that will identify the author as belonging to an approved approach, discipline, or subdiscipline. This means that many journal editors are likely to practice, without conscious intention, a restriction upon free use of language…. Some words will have to pass stringent tests before they can gain admittance. Others will be protected currency, circulating untaxed between authors and readers.”
The hint of protectionism here is not accidental. A terminology signals an approach -- and an approach implies a social and professional network. Becoming comfortable and proficient within a subdiscipline’s semantic field is the prerequisite for disciplinary socialization. (Billig has some amusing and revealing pages on the expression “semantic field,” while “socialization” is a boilerplate example of the ubiquitous reliance on “-ization” and “-ification” to create words of a pleasing vagueness. The author considers the latter tendency a form of reification, then discusses how the term very "reification" is itself an example of the problem,)
One standard explanation of the value of a theoretically informed and narrowly circulating vocabulary is that it avoids the assumptions and restrictions of ordinary language. And it very well may, though Billig has some sharp points to make about the simple-mindedness of treating “ordinary language” as some homogenous and uniformly contaminated medium.
But his more important point, I think, is that apprentice scholars don’t typically “find that their research meets an impasse which they can only overcome by seeking out different words or phrases, either because they are confronting new problems, which cannot be expressed in the old ways, or because they have been discovering new phenomena, for which there are no existing names.” Instead, they assimilate “this odd way of writing and speaking as a sign that they are entering into the world of research, thereby leaving behind their ordinary ways of talking and writing.” Otherwise, Billig says, your peers won’t know that you aren’t just somebody who’s just wandered in out of the rain.
So in a way Billig is confirming what Talcott Parsons said in that passage quoted earlier:
“Attachment to common values means, motivationally considered, that the actors have common ‘sentiments’ in support of the value patterns, which may be defined as meaning that conformity with the relevant expectations is treated as a ‘good thing’ relatively independently of any specific instrumental ‘advantage’ to be gained from such conformity, e.g. in the avoidance of negative sanctions.”
Ulrich Beck is an internationally known and highly influential sociologist -- easily one of the biggest names in social theory alive today -- and he is to be thanked for finding a way to talk about postmodernity without subjecting us to that word. He refers instead to “second modernity,” and understands it less as a period than as a process. Old-model modernity came from the advance of scientific knowledge, mass production, and instrumental rationality, which broke down patterns of pre-industrial social life and replaced them with its own institutions, such as the nuclear family and the nation-state. With second modernity, individuals are increasingly capable of questioning and challenging those institutions as well, creating new forms of relationship or affiliation.
In particular, Beck’s work on the concept of the “risk society” helps make sense of a contradictory phenomenon. The prediction and control of risk becomes a normal part of life under first modernity. “If a ﬁre breaks out,” he writes, “the ﬁre brigade comes; if a trafﬁc accident occurs, the insurance pays.” But at the same time, our technologies and second-modernity lifestyles don’t inure us to risk. On the contrary, they generate and expose us to new kinds of risk: identity theft, for example, or bizarre meteorological events resulting from global ecological changes. (Or “allegedly” resulting from them: Beck indicates that cultivating ignorance or denial of the new dangers is one possible social response.) Furthermore, the emerging risks tend to be on a scale that cuts across national borders: the globalization of unanticipated danger.
Beck’s latest book in translation, Twenty Observations on a World in Turmoil (Polity), is a collection of sociological commentaries originally published in European magazines and newspapers between July 2009 and September 2011. Theorizing via journalism means painting a landscape from the back of a moving train. But Beck’s established concepts are broad enough to fit the contours of the major events of the past few years, which he lists as “the nuclear worst-case scenario in Fukushima, the global financial crisis, the chaos in the European zone, the uprisings of the Arab spring, as well as the protest movements in Athens, Barcelona, New York, Moscow, etc.” All of them were, he writes, “by nature transnational and therefore cannot be understood and explained within the frame of reference of the national outlook.” (The same would be true of other developments from this period that come to mind: the British Petroleum spill, the Wikileaks document releases.)
Elsewhere, Beck has referred to “zombie concepts”: ideas that are no longer alive but continue moving and, presumably, eating our brains. And the nation-state as a basic scene or subject of political action is, for him, clearly one of the most noxious. At the same time, the new sources of danger are of a nature that makes planning and preparation (by whoever, on whatever scale) both critically urgent and almost impossible. “If man-made climate change has gone beyond the point of no return,” Beck writes, “if terrorists have access to atomic weapons, if the global economy has already imploded, then every measure comes too late! Therefore, we have to invest in new technologies, develop new notions of justice, reduce our consumption and pump billions into failing banks in order to prevent ‘the worst,’ which must never occur and in the face of which our concepts fail.”
That they do. A refusal to think apocalyptically may soon count as irresponsible. And yet Beck’s notes are not despairing. In one essay the argument makes a detour to the American philosopher John Dewey’s book The Public and Its Problems (1927). “According to Dewey,” he writes, “a transnational public sphere powerful enough to create a community arises not from political decisions but from the consequences of decisions which have come to seem problematic in the eyes of citizens. Thus a publicly perceived risk triggers communication among people who would otherwise prefer to have nothing to do with one another. It imposes obligations and costs on people who resist – and who often have the prevailing law on their side.”
Or, to put it in a 1960s way, "democracy is in the streets." We will need what he calls a “global domestic politics” – one recognizing that the well-being of the rest of the world is, after all, a matter of enlightened self-interest. People will have to assume a second-modernity reflexive stance toward their own status as national citizens, and create new modalities of political belonging. The contours of such a politics are barely visible in Twenty Observations: a cross between the Occupy movement and the European Union, perhaps, with some Wikileaks features thrown in. Beck will presumably have more to say about it in his future work.
As for the book now in hand.... Well, the implication seems to be that the transnational public sphere will emerge (and a practice of global domestic politics to go along with it) only in the wake of worldwide catastrophe, not before. And that is an optimistic reading. But then Beck is looking at things from the back of the train, and really doesn't know any more about where it is headed than the rest of us.