Income inequality is a symptom, not the disease. People realize that now. They see the symptom erupting in all directions, but, at a visceral level, they can sense the deeper pathology at work in their lives. The disease is a lack of accountability, a failure of the responsible institutions, political and otherwise, to do their jobs as a check on the inebriate gluttony of the financial sector of the economy, abetted by its pet economists and its legions of fans in the business media, and the disease is also a political system so awash with the proceeds that it can’t clear a space to do anything about making whole the victims of this reckless pilferage. Income inequality is the medical shorthand.
The butcher’s bill will run to volumes.
Appreciated, Doctor – except that “lack of accountability” is also a symptom, or perhaps something of an understatement or euphemism.
To review: The international political-economic system began to run aground in the late ’60s. It took a decade for a patch to be put into place that for the United States amounted to putting the entire country, public and private, on credit cards, so that wages could be frozen, profits could continue to accumulate, and surpluses could be absorbed where rates of growth could be sustained: financialization. A generation later, the absolute crisis – the final crisis in principle, but not necessarily the last actual poltiical crisis – of that financialized system finally commenced system-wide, globally.
The lack of “accountability” – itself a quasi-financial term – not only preceded this period, but was already its basis from the outset, as a characteristic of the system as a whole. The imposition of accountability, the coming to accounts, would be a challenge to an entire system based on denial, implying a predicament insusceptible to mere adjustment, but with an appearance and, under the law of diminishing returns, a fading reality of manageability when observed from proximity to the centers of unaccountable power and privilege.
Pierce’s entire post is as readable as always, but approaches a higher level of abstraction than usual for him or for most bloggers and pundits. It shows how a leftish but not quite leftist pundit, writing in the pages of Esquire (whose now-available January cover story is on the “American Class System“), can express himself convincingly as a neo-Marxist revolutionary without ever putting it in so many dangerous and intolerable words.
Pierce’s analysis put me immediately in mind of a line from Jonathan Chait, from an otherwise little-remarked post, also on the question of income inequality and the ability, or inability, of the American political system to address it. Describing the frustrating limits of Obama’s version of “New Nationalism,” Chait explains how neither Obama nor anyone else on the current American political scene is prepared to address the real basis of inequality, which is inequality per se – the non-equivalence of power (including power as wealth) that re-produces itself through income inequality.
Chait’s term of art for the vast and enduring inequality of assets is “pre-transfer inequality.” His conclusion:
I remain unconvinced that there is a useful plan that can actually reverse or halt growing pre-transfer inequality at an acceptable price, and even if there were, it’s impossible to imagine the U.S. political system ever enacting it.
Read today, and perhaps at any other previous time in the history of the United States of America, the above quite reasonable observation sets the limits of political change, and re-states the definition of a political system that originated in the ideal of protecting the individual and his property from absolute power. At the limits of economic expansion, at the coming due of accounts – perhaps now, perhaps after a few more years or a decade of the absolute crisis – Chait’s words convert immediately into a revolutionary credo: If the system cannot enact what the system must enact, then the system must be replaced.