Who Really Cares About Inequality?

In my previous column (“Yes — The Rent Really Is Too Damn High,” C4SS Oct. 26)  I pointed out the prevalence of rents on artificial property rights, and all the ways in which we pay tribute to privileged classes for the immense “service” of not obstructing our access to opportunities to apply our labor to the material world.

The question arises, though, of their motive.  And I strongly suspect their motivation is not exhausted by material considerations like the amount of wealth they get from extorting tribute for the right to produce.

I suspect their motivation is, to a large extent, about control and status.

Right-wingers are fond of arguing that egalitarian lefties are irrational for caring about inequality of wealth.  So long as you have a high material standard of living, and it’s increasing for everyone, who cares if someone else has more than you?  But in reality, I think it’s the super-rich ruling elites who really care about inequality.  For them, though, what it boils down to is that no amount of absolute wealth is enough for them, if everyone else has just as much and the positional goods entailed in wealth and power are missing.

What appeal would there be, for David Rockefeller or Bill Gates, in a world where everyone had a cheap Star Trek matter-energy replicator that could provide them with an unlimited standard of living — and in which that standard of living was available to everyone free and clear, without dependence on anyone else?

Most of the hierarchical institutions in our world, and the people running them, exist only for the sake of rationing scarce goods.  The management at your workplace, and the sense of identity they get from their jobs, all revolve around the fact of scarcity and your dependence on them to keep paying the rent and grocery bill.  In a world where they no longer get status from control over other people’s livelihoods, they’d be strangers in a strange land.  A world in which all the hierarchical institutions formerly required to regulate scarcity become redundant and irrelevant — in which every single person was the equal of Gates and Rockefeller in wealth and power, and could tell them to go to hell with impunity — would be intolerable for them.  What fun would it to live like a king, if everyone was a king?

The character of “The Major,” in Daniel Suarez’s “Daemon” novels, saw his role as defending a system of authority and subordination, and keeping the institutional wheels turning efficiently.  This meant, above all, keeping the populace dependent on the existing institutional framework for their survival.  Confronted with the threat from an economy of abundance — the super-efficient, high-tech local economies of the “holons,” based on micromanufacturing and intensive agriculture — he reacted with total revulsion.  He fought a total war, with death squad terror and scorched earth, to raze the  holons to the ground and erase their existence from living memory, because of their subversive effect in demonstrating that people could live without authority.

Something like this was the thesis of “Goldstein’s Book,” in 1984.  The industrial economies of the 20th century created the problem of abundance:  a populace with enough leisure to remove their noses from the grindstone and start asking pointed questions about the age-old systems of authority they observed in their world.  In order to maintain the power of the old ruling hierarchies — the kings and priests, the bureaucrats, the owners and employers — it was necessary to destroy the subversive threat of abundance, and to keep the general public poor and stupid.  The beauty of perpetual war with Eurasia and Eastasia was that it enabled Oceania to blast unlimited amounts of economic output into the stratosphere or sink them to the bottom of the sea, and push everyone down to the margin of subsistence so they’d be too busy staying alive to ask all sorts of impertinent questions.

This problem — how to maintain the power of the old ruling hierarchies where there is no longer a material need for them — is a recurring theme in literature.  It’s the subject of the satirical Report from Iron Mountain, a fictitious government document addressing the need for some moral equivalent of war to maintain public deference to the ruling and owning classes in the face of the subversive effects of world peace.

It’s the people at the top of the pile, not those at the bottom, who care most about inequality.

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