Most of you probably know that the Occupy Wall Street movement in NYC has a library, appropriately enough called the Occupy Wall Street Library. They accept contributions, so as a small gesture of solidarity, I sent the library a couple of books: Brian Barry’s Why Social Justice Matters and Nell Irvin Painter’s Standing at Armageddon: a Grassroots History of the Progressive Era. It seemed the librararianly thing to do.
Why Social Justice Matters was political philosopher Brian Barry’s last book, and while it’s not perfect it makes a good case for the injustice of large social and economic inequalities, and it’s more or less accessible for a work of political philosophy. I considered sending John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, but Barry’s book is an easier read in my opinion and has a tinge of anger appropriate to the moment.
Painter’s book was one of several histories of the Progressive Era I could have chosen, all of which tell more or less the same story. I really don’t understand all the hostility to the federal government among people who would be significantly worse off if the government shrank to the levels of the nineteenth century, which seems to be what a lot of people claim to want. I believe, but could be wrong, that the hostility is based on a lack of knowledge about what conditions were really like for most Americans before the social legislation of the first seventy or so years of the twentieth century. With income inequality approaching Gilded Age proportions again, Americans should realize that the only thing that makes life secure and tolerable for the majority is that disorganized citizens have some protection against the force of politically connected transnational corporations and totally unregulated markets. Yet, some Americans want to take us back to an age of relative barbarism. Some fool claims Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, another fool believes him, and we’re on the road to misery. There’s a difference between the elderly and infirm who benefit from Social Security and Bernie Madoff, and if Americans can’t tell the difference we’re in trouble.
Some of the radicals trying to destroy the government claim that Social Security, for example, is “broken.” That’s nonsense. Social Security has been a raving success and saved millions upon millions of people from destitution, which is what it was supposed to do. Apply the payroll tax to all income instead of just the income below $106,800, and it would probably be well funded forever. The New Deal social legislation that so-called conservatives want to destroy came about for a reason. It wasn’t created by a bunch of socialists intent on destroying America. It was created after mass protests and misery that threatened the stability of the entire society. Massive income inequality is in itself bad if social order is important, even if you don’t care if people die in front of hospitals because they can’t afford treatment. All you have to do is read about America from 1880–1935 or so to see what I mean. Again, I suspect that a lot of people intent on rolling back the New Deal don’t know much about what it accomplished.
The predictable right-wing criticisms are so rote and hollow that I don’t see how anyone could possibly take them seriously, as I suspect even the politicians and pundits who mouth them don’t. The strangest one is the claim that one must be some sort of socialist to approve of the protests. I, for one, firmly believe in private enterprise and free markets, and that we should rely on free markets to provide what they can. But it’s clear to anyone with eyes to see that there are some things free markets can’t provide: equitable access to education, healthcare, sanitation, safe food, clean water, and breathable air for starters. Reading any history of the Progressive Era will show you that those things cannot be taken for granted for everyone without the government redistributing wealth into social programs, environmental protection, safety regulation, and infrastructure. To want every American child to have the opportunity to get an education, live in surroundings other than squalor, and have clean drinking water and untainted food and unpoisoned air doesn’t make a person a socialist; it just makes them a decent human being. If people live or die, flourish or stagnate, based completely on factors out of their control–like how much their parents make, or if they even have parents, or if they can afford to live in a safe neighborhood–then there is no social justice. The equal opportunity that a lot of Americans believe should be available to people regardless of where and to whom they were born isn’t possible without good government, and plenty of it. If people don’t believe America should be a land of equal opportunity, then they should just come out and admit it rather than crying “socialism” and “tax cuts” every five minutes.
The more intelligent criticism from the right is still misguided. It always wants to find a focus for the protests, the way the Republicans eventually got the Tea Party movement to focus on the deficit (though not on any of the Republican policies that increased the deficit so much). Why are they protesting J.P. Morgan when Morgan had nothing to do with financing bad mortgages? Why are they protesting the bailouts when the money was all paid back with interest? Focusing on specific concerns is an act of rhetorical prestidigitation, trying to focus your attention on one tree instead of the whole forest. It’s not about bailouts or mortgages or unemployment or the economy or any one given thing. It’s about two generations of American politicians at the federal and state levels favoring corporate interests above all else and steadily eroding the opportunities of the lower and middle classes that had been created in the first seventy years of the twentieth. America has never been a country of truly equal opportunity for all, but the closer we come to that, the more just our society will be. It’s not about one thing. It’s about everything. It about what America means, and what it means to be an American. We witnessed the Arab Spring. Perhaps we’ll witness an American Fall, one way or another.