November 20, 2014 / by admin / American History / No Comments

The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America

The Politics of Inequality: A Political History of the Idea of Economic Inequality in America

Language: English

Pages: 264

ISBN: 0231140746

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Since the early days of the American republic, political thinkers have maintained that a grossly unequal division of property, wealth, and power would lead to the erosion of democratic life. Yet over the past thirty-five years, neoconservatives and neoliberals alike have redrawn the tenets of American liberalism. Nowhere is this more evident than in our current mainstream political discourse, in which the politics of economic inequality are rarely discussed.

In this impassioned book, Michael J. Thompson reaches back into America's rich intellectual history to reclaim the politics of inequality from the distortion of recent American conservatism. He begins by tracing the development of the idea of economic inequality as it has been conceived by political thinkers throughout American history. Then he considers the change in ideas and values that have led to the acceptance and occasional legitimization of economic divisions. Thompson argues that American liberalism has made a profound departure from its original practice of egalitarian critique. It has all but abandoned its antihierarchical and antiaristocratic discourse. Only by resuscitating this tradition can democracy again become meaningful to Americans.

The intellectuals who pioneered egalitarian thinking in America believed political and social relations should be free from all forms of domination, servitude, and dependency. They wished to expose the antidemocratic character of economic life under capitalism and hoped to prevent the kind of inequalities that compromise human dignity and freedom-the core principles of early American politics. In their wisdom is a much broader, more compelling view of democratic life and community than we have today, and with this book, Thompson eloquently and adamantly fights to recover this crucial strand of political thought.

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topic had also seen—that it could only lead to a disintegration of political freedom and to social fragmentation. Optimism also existed about the economic system that would begin to emerge in the early decades of the nineteenth century. This was countered by radical critics of inequality who saw that the emergence of modern forms of industry and finance were leading toward a stratified economic hierarchy that corrupted the labor theory of property and was destroying the ideal of economic

this economic equality would arise since the elimination of older forms of land holding and the even playing field that markets created would allow the overcoming of the stubborn inequalities of the past, which were rooted in feudal social arrangements of land and orders. James Steuart’s idea of a participatory economy argued that when all individuals and classes participated in the national economy it would allow for a social harmony unknown in a past marked by privilege and hierarchy.27 In

there was also an important change in class structure and the nature of the market as big business grew in size and in scope. Alfred Chandler argues that in addition to a concentration of capital and wealth, there was a simultaneous growth of a “new class” of professionals and managers. The older ideas about Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” and the free operation of the impersonal market were being replaced with decisions made by a more highly complex bureaucratic corporate elite. The old economy

problem in and of itself; it was the symptom of a greater illness: capitalism, exploitation, atomization, egoism, barbarism. But early socialists like Most and Sorge premised their critiques on alternatives that were highly utopian, to say the least. They relied on a complete transformation of the economic life of nineteenth-century America: a massive, egalitarian redistribution of property and the common ownership of property. Whereas George held that the solution to the injustice of modern

Progressives like Weyl and Croly, as well as thinkers like Dewey, saw the need to embrace a more democratic modernity in order to overcome the shattering social consequences of the Gilded Age. Plutocracy was, in Weyl’s estimation, merely temporary because it was being effectively counteracted by the emergence of “socialized democracy.” Individualism was therefore no longer what it had been in the late eighteenth century, in its classical liberal guise—it was now little more than an apologia for

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