These disunited states

Update, January 10, 2020: Added citations to the article by Annalisa Merelli. It seems that most Amerikkkans, still believing in the “Amerikkkan Dream,” really don’t care about income inequality.[1] I have also modified some text in my description of exchange systems to recognize that coercion or manipulation may be means of “persuasion.” Coercion can, of course, include slavery or, as Max Weber recognized, the depravations of poverty;[2] and manipulation can, of course, include deceit.


When I look at the United States and its problems, I reduce these to two fundamental issues:

  1. The political system is foundationally structured to protect the wealthy from the poor and not to protect anyone else.[3]
  2. The population does not share a common set of values. George Lakoff understands these as metaphors, but the metaphors, especially “equality,” “fairness,” and “freedom,” often do not mean the same things to all people and different people rank them differently in terms of importance. A principal issue is, to what extent do we exist for ourselves as individuals and to what extent do we exist as members of a group with responsibilities to other members to that group?[4]


The first exacerbates the second. When political protections heavily favor the wealthy, they bias the entire social order in favor of individualism, a “law of the jungle” economics that, as Max Weber noted, inherently privileges whomever has the greater power to say no and at the expense of those with lesser power. Worse, the privileges and handicaps are exacerbated with every transaction, leading to ever greater inequality.[5]

In a properly functioning system, there would be a feedback, even in the form of violent revolution, that would somehow mitigate social inequality. The French and Russian Revolutions come to mind, along with the gyrations of Latin American politics, which have generally favored oligarchies but occasionally brought leftist regimes to power. But even in these examples, the result has remained the same, with political and economic power concentrated in the hands of the few.

I lay much blame for this on exchange systems. Inherently, these promote individualist values as they position us in opposition to each other: A transaction isn’t really about what I can do for you, but rather about what you can do for me, and what I have to do, possibly through coercion or manipulation, to get you to do that for me. In this way, I protect myself from what I presume to be your “natural” preference to get something for nothing, which would be to take advantage of me. In such an arrangement, we are not and cannot be allies but rather must be adversaries, each defending ourselves from the other.

An issue here is to the extent to which this is really “natural.” Broadly speaking, on a linear view of political leanings, the farther to the right you are, the more likely you are to rely on an individualist presumption of selfishness. And if you assume that people are indeed selfish, it follows that you have no duty to the poor, whom you may view as “lazy” and “unproductive.” And this will be how you explain a relationship between “crime” and class stratification in a way that justifies a stigmatization and repression of the poor.[6]

Conversely, the farther to the lower case-“l” left, as in “bleeding heart liberal,” you are, the more likely you are to see injustice as a cause for crime and to note that the rich are also criminals.[7]

A curious development in capital-“L” Leftist politics is that many on the Left have come to diminish class in favor of their own self-identifications of subaltern status: Through this lens, we are repressed not so much because we are poor, but because we are not straight, white, male, old, “cis,” “abled,” etcetera. Further, we compete with each other to prioritize our own identity group grievances.[8] As a poor older straight white male who is comfortable with my gender identity, I find myself excluded from the Left. And as the Left has embraced an identity politics of some identities, it serves the interests of the wealthy. After all, we all want to be rich, right?[9]

Which means there is no feedback to redress social inequality. The political order of older wealthy white men is much less threatened by a Left squabbling amongst itself over whose grievances should take precedence. And “diversity” comes to support individualism as whatever it is that makes me “different,” so long as it isn’t being old, male, or poor, enhances my claim to subaltern status.

Which probably, in a bipartisan system, explains why so many white males of varying economic strata support the party that has stood longest for the rich against the party that has more recently betrayed the poor and working classes.[10]

James Madison’s answer to the problem of faction, which he saw chiefly occurring along class lines, was to rig the system in favor of the rich. And it turns out he was right about the rest of the population dividing itself into factions and thus being unable to challenge the rich,[11] as these factions are poorly represented by the major political parties.

But in doing so, he advanced a system that would inevitably be polarized along something like the lines we see today while a large majority of us refuse to even consider the inherent problems of individualism and the exchange system.[12]

  1. [1]Annalisa Merelli, “New study finds most Americans don’t really care about inequality,” Quartz, January 9, 2020, https://qz.com/1780450/new-study-finds-most-americans-dont-really-care-about-inequality/
  2. [2]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 94-101.
  3. [3]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (New York: Bantam, 2003), 50-58.
  4. [4]George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002); George Lakoff, Whose Freedom? (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
  5. [5]Max Weber, “Class, Status, Party,” in Social Theory, ed. Charles Lemert, 6th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2017), 94-101.
  6. [6]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  7. [7]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).
  8. [8]Amy Chua, Political Tribes (New York: Penguin, 2018); Amy Chua, “How America’s identity politics went from inclusion to division,” Guardian, November 9, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/mar/01/how-americas-identity-politics-went-from-inclusion-to-division
  9. [9]Annalisa Merelli, “New study finds most Americans don’t really care about inequality,” Quartz, January 9, 2020, https://qz.com/1780450/new-study-finds-most-americans-dont-really-care-about-inequality/
  10. [10]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005); Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire (New York: Metropolitan, 2012).
  11. [11]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (New York: Bantam, 2003), 50-58.
  12. [12]Annalisa Merelli, “New study finds most Americans don’t really care about inequality,” Quartz, January 9, 2020, https://qz.com/1780450/new-study-finds-most-americans-dont-really-care-about-inequality/

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