The connection between political and economic disenfranchisement is little understood — or perhaps more accurately misunderstood — in the United States. The astounding inequality of wealth in the nation is considered to be the result of free and fair competitive markets, so one must not ask whether there has been foul play. The question of a class system, contained in both political and economic institutions, is certainly not to be broached.
Nevertheless, celebrity academic Cornel West has the utter impudence (thank goodness) to introduce some of the more unnerving realities of extreme inequality (“Cornel West Calls Obama a ‘Rockefeller Republican in Blackface,’” Nonprofit Quarterly, November 13).
Here is another one percent datum: The lower fifty percent of households in the U.S. hold a mere one percent of the total wealth. Professor West says such a condition threatens an arbitrary, autocratic “crypto-fascist America.” He may be right, or else we may in fact have such an authoritarian state, one in which democracy and social mobility are used cynically to mollify the people.
The very idea of economic freedom has been tainted by the deceitful rhetoric of government and corporate overlords. The free market that anarchists have in mind, the one scarcely ever defended by these statesmen and bosses, is nothing if not egalitarian. It means equal access — guaranteed by the absence of privilege — to the horn of plenty that is the natural world, which we now find cornered behind the patronage of the state. And the state (government, as it were) is the great minion of the capitalist class, its custodian, preserver and raison d’etre. Economic domination and political domination are fastened, indeed require one another, for the simple reason that there is naturally a profusion of the things human beings actually need to live and thrive, particularly so in a world as technologically sophisticated as our own. The wretched poverty that defines contemporary life is the progeny of the authoritarian idea made manifest.
Anarchist Henry Addis treated the straitening of economies over one hundred years ago: “Imagine a condition of freedom, a condition in which every one has an equal opportunity with every one else. Superabundance of the requisites of life, culture and refinement, would soon exist.” A facile, naive explanation it may seem, utopian almost, but it only stands to reason if we should investigate the economics of the day even at all. From a practical, utilitarian standpoint — independent of the fact that individuals should be regarded and treated as individual sovereigns — competitive markets are equitable and “spread the wealth.”
Free access to capital and free movement of people and goods would assure the widest dissemination of resources compatible with liberty. While an honestly free, competitive system would not promise absolute equality of material conditions for all (nothing but the most totalitarian dystopia could), it would raze the profit system as we now know it. The high, extractive profits of the monopoly economy of privilege are of course the mirror image of the pauperdom it occasions. Lofty mounds of accumulated wealth for some obviously means miserable impoverishment for most.
An economic system that exalts the reciprocal aspects of human relationships, abolishing special privilege, is a fair system of trade and harmonious coordination — really, it is hardly to be called a “system” at all. Only violent, arbitrary stockades can hold up such unstable heaps of wealth. Remove the barriers, allow competition fully, and wealth will surge forth and circulate as a natural and inevitable result.