Inequality and progress, privilege and barnacles

I’ve recently been to Cape Town, for work. It is impossible for someone like me to visit South Africa without asking “What am I doing with my privileges?” (see previous post). The scale of abject poverty would be overwhelming in itself, but in Cape Town it is paired with unapologetic displays of eye-watering, heavily-guarded wealth. To my eyes, Cape Town is the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with our current world, even if I’m told that Johannesburg is worse.

Darwin and the Barnacle: The Story of One Tiny Creature and History’s Most Spectacular Scientific Breakthrough. By Rebecca Stott.

Also recently, I’ve read a delightful book: Darwin and the Barnacle, by Rebecca Stott. This little gem tells the story of what Darwin was up to, before writing the Origins, but after conceiving the idea of evolution by natural selection. Turns out he dedicated about 8 years of his life to the classification of barnacles (Cirripedia). Why? Because he was a clever chap, and, in my own interpretation, he wanted to achieve two primary objectives. First, he needed to establish himself as a highly respected zoologist – he knew very well that a solid reputation was necessary to ensure his big idea would get a fair hearing. Second, he wanted to see how his idea on the origin of species would influence the meticulous work of classification.

It is impossible, for me, to read this book without noticing how much privilege Darwin enjoyed, but at the same time, one cannot possibly miss how well he used it.

The picture of Darwin that Stott paints is that of a wealthy individual who could spend all his time on something as unproductive as cataloguing barnacles. He earned a living by investing on land and stocks, after receiving an education at his family’s expense. Moreover, his work was dependent on a world-wide network of fellow zoologists, most of whom shared a similar lifestyle. Naturally, this network was possible only because of the postal system, which in turn was kept together by the systematic exploitation on which colonial empires were built. If that wasn’t enough, the first chapters of the book also provide an insight on the cultural milieu in which Darwin conceived his idea. Besides famous predecessors like Lamarck, Stott mentions Darwin’s university teachers and peers, their own influences, and so forth. All white men (most likely), all wealthy enough to pursue intellectual endeavours which afforded little or no obvious economic returns, spanning for generations. In other words, it is impossible to read “Darwin and the barnacle” without gaining an insight on how much privilege and inequality have been necessary to allow one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in the history of humanity. Take away Darwin’s privileges, the global system of inequality on which the British Empire was built (along with the other colonial powers) and Darwin would not have been able to do all the groundwork which secured his standing and thus ensured his ground-breaking book could not pass unnoticed. Take away the similar privilege of the countless thinkers who influenced him, and you’ll feel safe to bet that Darwin could not have conceived the idea of Natural Selection at all.

What this tells us (Stott’s writing is good enough to let you feel it in your bones) is that, in the world as it was organised back then, inequality enabled discovery and (scientific/technological) progress. I have little doubt the argument can stretch back for countless centuries, so I’ll leave it to my readers to look into their preferred breakthrough and see if privilege and inequality played an enabling part.

The result is as distasteful as obvious. Intellectual progress requires time to think. Time to collect and exchange ideas, time for debate, time spent studying, collecting or generating evidence, and so forth. Crucially, it requires time to develop gargantuan numbers of new ideas, most of which will turn out to be inadequate (we can remember Lamarck, to remain within the topic), but will nevertheless enable further improvements. Making mistakes (and lots of them!) is how we learn most of the important lessons. Ground-breaking thinking requires to be able to safely make mistakes, without risking too much of one’s livelihood, at least. None of the above can be done in significant amounts if everyone has to invest most of their time actively earning a living. If we move into the present world, people like me can spend a lot of time doing just that, but it is undeniable that I enjoy an amount of privilege that could probably make Darwin himself green with envy. Most people in academia are paid to study the stuff they love, how can you beat that?

In short: if we want progress, we need some privilege and inequality. Ugh.

Not nice, but not groundbreaking either. We all knew it already, right? Perhaps, but I get the feeling that we are happy to ignore this shared knowledge. First of all, most of us feel that we’ve earned our current standing. I know I do. However, this feeling is wrong, but not just a little wrong: it is positively delusional, as summarised in this comic strip, by Toby Morris (this is required reading!).

Moreover, inequality is increasingly prominent in public discourse: scholars and commentators agree that inequality is growing in uncontrollable and dangerous ways. However, I fear that the situation is frequently discussed superficially. Reading the news, I get the impression that inequality is treated as somewhat inevitable. It is indeed inevitable, but its shape and effects aren’t. If we could start to collectively question the otherwise invisible neoliberal assumptions that underpin most of our society, I am pretty sure that we would find better ways to manage, or even exploit, the inevitable inequality that comes with complex social organisations. There are, in the public discourse, some voices who are able to challenge said assumptions, but again, most of them seem to forget a couple of details. On one hand, all of the public voices who are able to challenge the established order are able to do so because of the privileges that such order confers them. On the other, most of these voices tend to work on the assumption that inequality is bad and should be eliminated. Too bad that such a vision doesn’t work. It is indefensible. Take an idealised society, where everyone is equal. How does it look? It doesn’t, that’s how. It is not possible. Not even hunter-gatherers have perfectly flat societies. Elders have privileges, good looks confer unearned status, and so forth. If a society allows specialisation, and specialisation is required in every technology-based society, different specialisations will confer different opportunities. These differences will propagate along kinship and relational networks (if I know about computers, my kids would probably grow up familiar with computers, etc.). Thus, no social organisation can be based on absolute equality: organising entails unequal distribution of opportunities.

Once again, this is all obvious to the point of being boring, but it needs to be tackled head-on. Doing so paints the problem of inequality in a different light: our problem is not the existence of inequality. Our problem is twofold, it is about excessive accumulation and misuse. On one side, there simply is too much inequality. On the other, if we don’t accept that privilege can be useful, we can easily fail to reap its potential benefits. As a result, too much privilege goes to waste. That is, I’d argue, the actual problem that we face.

Accumulation:

According to Oxfam:

The 1,810 dollar billionaires on the 2016 Forbes list, 89% of whom are men, own $6.5 trillion – as much wealth as the bottom 70% of humanity.

I would guess that roughly 99% of the privileges that such wealth could confer are going to waste. It is quite fair to assume that most of these people spend their days trying to maximise their wealth. After all, in a capitalist society, this is what they are supposed to be doing. [The Forbes’ Billionaires list, used to collect the figures above, makes it perfectly clear: in the link above the list is preceded by the “Today’s Winners & Losers” section, emphasising our inclination of framing such matters in competitive terms.]
Some of these people do spend some of their time trying to facilitate progress, that much is true. But is it enough? Nah – it can’t be: billionaires have disproportionate amounts of power, and very little constraints. At the very least, their concerns will be biased by their own position and cannot possibly be considered to be diverse enough to approximately reflect the needs and desires of humanity as a whole.

Misuse:

If we don’t recognise that privilege is supposed to be useful (for society as a whole, not just the privileged!), we can (and do) encourage people to waste it. We return to Cape Town. What good are enormous mansions used a few weeks per year, for the holidays of some billionaire? None or almost none. What does society gain by building enormous yachts that sail across the world to be used in the week-end (and be reached by private jet)? Close to nothing. Who needs the latest Ferrari? Nobody. What does society gain from the existence of few individuals who have enough spending power to buy entire countries?

I think and hope that this state of affairs is not necessary or inevitable. What facilitates it is a collection of self-serving ideas: that privilege is earned, that the act of earning it guarantees something useful was done in the process, and that therefore privilege can be spent/used without second thoughts.

I disagree. Privilege is usually the result of luck (95%, or thereabout). Moreover, as Darwin’s encounter with barnacles testifies, privilege should be used, not dilapidated. Thus, we get two streams of consequences, and an overarching question.

The question is: when is inequality too much? If some privilege is both inevitable and potentially useful, it follows that there probably exists a Goldilocks zone for inequality. Enough to allow an adequate number of people to take risks, write novels, play music, invest in apparently idle intellectual quests, etc., but not much more than that.

[Note: it would be wrong to assume that such a Goldilocks inequality zone is fixed. It is probably a function of how society is organised and of general availability of resources. It would be equally wrong to assume that such an ideal status always correlates with periods of high cultural or technological advancement. High inequality will generally allow some people to pursue intellectual endeavours; however, the results might be visible even when an unnecessarily high amount of privilege goes to waste.]

Consequences: global.

Forbes’ figures leave little room for doubt. This article (by David Leonhardt) tells us that it’s getting worse. If there isn’t too much inequality right now (there is, but let’s pretend) and the trend isn’t inverted, there soon will be. Thus, we reach the predictable conclusion that we need to invert the trend. That’s OK, only problem is that we don’t know how to do it. To be fair, we have plenty of reasons to worry that we can’t: the current political developments suggests that we are actually busy electing politicians who are determined to facilitate the rise of inequality (even when they are not directly funded by those who want to protect existing privileges)… If something is to be done, I’d start by NOT electing such people.

Consequences: personal.

What is a little less predictable is what all of this means for you and me. If you are reading this, you have an internet connection and some time to read. Thus, almost without exception, every person reading this article probably has some spare time and some mental energy to invest – I do, clearly… The question is: how are we using our spare resources? Are we allowing our privilege to be wasted? Probably.

Thus, we reconnect with my previous post. I am incredibly lucky. I am trying to use my luck: I have the presumption that I am not bad at thinking, therefore I try to do just that. I think (and write), in my own idiosyncratic way.
Is it enough? Probably not, but at least I’m trying.

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Posted in Evolution, Philosophy, Politics, Science
11 comments on “Inequality and progress, privilege and barnacles
  1. I don’t follow your starting inference. You went roughly: Darwin had ridiculous privilege then (after some hand-wavy analogies between Darwin and your typical academic today) we need privilege for great ideas. I don’t think this is the case.

    What we need privilege for is to be remembered for our “great ideas” and for our ideas to be elevated to the status of “great”. The problem isn’t that people without privilege don’t have great ideas (due to a lack of time or energy to ‘think’ or whatever), the problem is that we don’t acknowledge when it was non-privileged people that had those ideas or we don’t recognize the ideas that non-privileged people had as worth remembering. To me, one of the biggest privileges seems to be having the power to write history and force that history on others.

    Now, I don’t think that this is just a pedantic point. But a central one. Because you then proceed down a very neoliberal feeling line to me (1) privilege is required for ‘great ideas’, and (2) privilege can be use ‘well’ or ‘poorly’, thus we have to (3) use privilege efficiently. To me, this seems too easy to abuse, it leads to people like Darwin making money from seeking rents and idleness and then being praised for using that privilege ‘well’. This happens just because some other privileged people (not Stott, but the century of historians who elevated Darwin to scientific sainthood) decided to write Darwin as a central character in their histories. In part, to justify and entrench their positions. Now, of course, Darwin isn’t a particularly bad example of this, worse examples of this can be found in people like Musk and Gates and Zuckerberg; or maybe if those robber-barons are too close to now, we can turn a century back and think of Vanderbilt, Rhodes, Rockefeller, Carnegie or any of the other beacons of inequality after which much of our cultural and academic system is named.

    That being said, I don’t know how to offer a more constructive analysis than you did. I don’t know how to be hopeful.

  2. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Artem,
    I’ll try some answers, at exceptional speed! 😉
    [All: see also this discussion on twitter to get the full picture of what Artem is saying.]
    A few quotes from Twitter:

    I think that optimizing for “efficient use of privilege” leads down a slippery slope of legitimizing a system of exploitation

    “systems of exploitation will (always) naturally emerge” is too much like a naturalization of capitalism argument.

    I am not trying to naturalise, or justify capitalism. However, I stand by my own quote (“systems of exploitation will (always) naturally emerge”). The problem is that any sufficiently stable social organisation, by virtue of being organised, entails unequal distributions of resources and opportunities. Whoever gets the best deal will, in many cases, try to ensure his kin / loved ones will enjoy the same benefits. Not all people, but many will. Thus, whenever a way to do so will emerge, those who recognise and exploit it will pass on this knowledge to the people around them. A reinforcing feedback loop, that’s all we need.
    Thus, such a feedback will *always* operate, in any society, no matter how it is organised. We know first-hand how this works in capitalistic liberal democracies, but I have precisely zero reasons to believe that the same entrenching of privilege does not operate in societies organised otherwise. So no, I don’t think I’m legitimising capitalism, at least, I’m not doing it on purpose!

    One of the many points I’m trying to reach does lead to the entrenchment in question: one needs to recognise its unavoidable presence and act to counterbalance it as much as possible.
    I am hoping that the argument I’m making explicitly, does justify this conclusion: even if a somewhat unequal distribution of resources and opportunities is inevitable, it doesn’t mean that:
    a. Who gains the best deal earned it (or deserves it),
    b. The current form of inequality is indeed inevitable or optimal (it is neither).

    Thus, we want to counterbalance the entrenchment of privilege because the entrenchment itself is not, and can never be optimal. One reason why I like this line of reasoning is that I hope it can appeal to people across the political spectrum. If I’m doing it right it doesn’t require one to be an old-style socialist to agree. Maybe even Musk would be happy to concede my point… 😉

    To me, one of the biggest privileges seems to be having the power to write history and force that history on others.

    This consideration is spot-on, I think. I was trying to pack so many things into my OP that I failed to signpost the small details that should signal my approval:
    First, he needed to establish himself as a highly respected zoologist – he knew very well that a solid reputation was necessary to ensure his big idea would get a fair hearing“, “most of us feel that we’ve earned our current standing. I know I do. However, this feeling is wrong, but not just a little wrong: it is positively delusional” and more.

    Indeed, “reputation” (used here as a “catch all” word) is one of the things one can get access to in uneven ways. I also don’t see how to turn this unevenness into a positive force, but I don’t see how to eliminate it either. Everyone can think, thinking is cheap. Thus everyone will have lots of ideas, and *all* of them will feel entirely justified to their author (until they don’t, and get changed or forgotten). So, yes, good ideas abound and are probably more available than what I’m inclined to think. However, we do need systems to filter. We probably agree with the rule that 90% of anything is crap, so mechanisms to help the 10% that has some value to emerge are always needed, favoured and therefore present.
    Example: you and I are much more likely to read each other blogs than that of a random person who just started one. Why? Because we respect each others’ opinions and know from experience that we are likely to find something of interest. Nothing wrong with this, but we need to acknowledge that we do filter. If we filter, we distribute unequally the limited resource of our attention. Even on such a small scale inequality comes up and proves to be necessary.
    I don’t like it, but that’s the conclusion I’m reaching.

    Thus, access to the right kind of education, know-how to get through it, etc. All are unequally distributed privileges that eventually build reputation (among other things) and thus “cultural credentials”. I know, ’cause I obstinately refuse to get a PhD ;-).
    Overall, I think we substantially agree on the fact that being in the position of making one’s ideas heard is a privilege, perhaps the ultimate privilege. I certainly should have highlighted this in the OP.

    However, I don’t see why this invalidates my overall point. People’s attention is a limited resource. Uneven distribution of this resource is inevitable and, to some extent, required, if we want good ideas to get allocated more attention. Thus, it becomes an optimisation problem again (I guess we both cringe at the language I decided to use: “optimisation”, in this context is distasteful, which is one more reason why I felt I had to write these thoughts down!): we need to find better ways to distribute it. What we don’t need, is to pretend that distributing it evenly will be any better.

    Conclusion: if some amount of privilege is inevitable and even desirable, how can we not conclude that we need to optimise it (i.e. try to make sure it’s present in the right quantity and that it is used in the best possible way)?

    I don’t like this conclusion, that’s why I need to discuss it. => thanks for the challenge!

    Is it a slippery slope? Without doubt. The slipperiness is why we need to put in sharp focus the difficulties: I am hoping it will help to avoid facile but utopian alternatives, especially because some entrenching will always happen…

  3. pabloredux says:

    This is really good! It’s really good that you’re asking these awkward questions, and being prepared to make it so personal. However (and I’m just adding my Twitter comments here, I haven’t read Artem’s reply, nor yours to his) is it right? I’m not convinced individual achievement backed by systemic exploitation couldn’t be replaced by group achievement via systematic collaboration?

  4. pabloredux says:

    Now I’ve read Artem’s reply and it’s so near my own view not to need to repeat it.

    Something I really liked, Sergio, about your reading of the book was that the author’s storytelling enriched your awareness of the role of social circumstances in human enterprises such as “science” and “progress and afforded you the opportunity to discuss – or dispute – their values.

    Every new text and new reading extends how we can understand the world.

    Stott has since written further herself: “Darwin’s Ghosts: In Search of the First Evolutionists, tells the 2,200 year history of evolution before Darwin through the lives of the heretics and freethinkers who were prepared to risk their freedom by challenging religious orthodoxies about the origin of species. It starts with Aristotle in Lesbos in 350BC and ends with Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species in 1859.” ( http://www.rebeccastott.co.uk/biography/ ) Perhaps we could question her choice of starting point?

    I think morality is perhaps the central enterprise humans are still working on, and my current feeling is that this is not a hopelessly relativistic exercise nor dependent on a single religious outlook being “true” but closely linked to our particularly human abilities to create, share and interpret multiple narratives arising from personal experiences. So that’s my hope, Artem – but it’s a long-term project (for humanity) to learn from difficult stories. In the short-term, we often prefer the easy conversations and convenient endings that won’t make the majority of the audience feel uncomfortable.

    I think the appearance of the word “optimisation” isn’t totally unhelpful. How should we best use the resources we can never own, but may briefly borrow, for a time and a space? Best for whom, shared with whom (or what)? These are the real problems to which we need to apply our intelligence and the systems by which we manage our lives.

    So says I – from my nice comfy seat on a fast train with handy electricity supply, good internet access, well served coffee and enjoyable slice of cake!

  5. artbourbon says:

    Hi Sergio. I’m deliberately ignoring Pablo and Artem’s comments (plus various thoughts of my own) in order to say simply that I’ve found your provocation (for that’s what it was for me) really useful.

    First of it’s led me to continually question the privilege of being able to do (and subsequently think or even write about) the things that mean the most to me. I think this is important, if only because it makes me aware how divorce these things may be from the lives of millions (billions probably of others). It matters to me that such opportunities should be available to everyone and that I’m not just discussing them with a tiny “elite” of like minded people.

    Second, it’s helped to strengthen my feeling that any meaningful intervention we might make in the world needs to not merely be available to but to involve and to learn from and with the people currently excluded from this privilege. And therefore to find ways to overcome that exclusion. Not by first changing the world but as a precondition for doing that.

    This, to be honest, is the most important thing for me about your post. I do, however, have other things I’d like to say – in part in response to Artem and Pablo. That will come in one or more subsequent comments.

  6. Sergio Graziosi says:

    All, thanks for chipping in!

    I will add a few, not well organised thoughts.
    First of all, please note another conversation on Twitter, where some more concerns got mentioned & discussed. Discussion wasn’t linear, so I’m afraid you’ll need to explore the Twitter thread to access it in full (if you wish to!).

    Second, having allowed myself some time to let some comments sink-in, I can confirm that for me, one of Artem’s objections is indeed central. The privilege of being heard, of establishing what ideas are to be considered “successful”, thereby managing to establish a frame with which to interpret narratives and so forth, is indeed either the all-encompassing privilege, or at the very least one of the most important ones.
    However, it is also one that necessarily rests on many other forms of inequality. For this reason, I still think I was right in my (not entirely deliberate) decision to merely point at it. I think this particular form of inequality (being heard and the ability to establish frames of reference) merits its own separate treatment (as in: via one or more dedicated posts). For my part, this won’t happen quickly, as the indirectness of how this particular privilege is established (one needs many more privileges to even start playing this particular game) and used (the “framing” of public discourse is something that is necessarily done collaboratively, no single agent can do it on its own), requires to identify carefully what abstractions to deploy.
    Moreover, simply having this conversation, in public, means that we all somewhat already enjoying this privilege, making the discussion really tricky.
    In simple words: I need time to think!

    One thing about this specific topic is clear to me, but is one element I did not even mention on these two posts: if we want more people to be able to participate in, and help framing, public discourse, one thing that could be useful is to lower the entry barriers. This links to a deliberate methodological choice of mine: when I write something, a good 50% of my efforts goes into making my argument accessible to the non-initiated – if I feel I won’t be able to, it’s quite likely that I won’t even bother writing, or publishing, my own thoughts. I still don’t know if this deliberate approach is sensible: by doing so, I’m inevitably validating/strengthening the accepted ways of framing and therefore discussing (or even identifying) a given topic.
    However, most of your comments are giving me some hope that it’s worth trying, at least because not doing so would be paralysing (you can’t discuss much if you refuse to frame your argument in one way or the other!).
    I would be really interested to hear Abeba’s comments on this particular detour…

    Third: I’ve re-read all I’ve written, and I think there is a (somewhat planned!) crucial misunderstanding. I’ll single out Pablo/Paul, for convenience, but I think that this misunderstanding is crucial and one of the reasons why I felt I had to write these two posts, as well as one of the reasons why I wrote them in this order and why I framed them from a personal point of view!

    I’m not convinced individual achievement backed by systemic exploitation couldn’t be replaced by group achievement via systematic collaboration?

    I’ve checked. There is nothing in my argument that suggests, or even hints to this conclusion (if you disagree, please point me to where I did!). I did not want to reach it, and I did not. However, I did expect you all to somehow infer that it was my implicit conclusion.
    Why? I don’t quite know. It’s a hard to pinpoint intuition. But yes (Stuart/artbourbon), I wanted to be provocative, and part of my provocation was intended to catch people out. Artem thought I was/am pointing to, and even endorsing, a slippery slope that justifies capitalism. Pablo reached the conclusion quoted above. I don’t know about Stuart and Abeba, but I would be surprised if the same kind of thoughts were not part of their own reactions.
    I am tempted to think that this misalignment between what (I think) I wrote (i.e. my own reading of myself!) and what people see in my argument points to the central problem I’m trying to highlight. It certainly is very important to me.

    Organised societies and/or specialisation produce uneven availability of resources. Hence some inequality is unavoidable..

    Accepting this, to me, means that the only choice is about how to optimise such inequality – my other reflections then seem to suggest that simply trying to minimise inequality would probably not count as a catch-all solution (which is a really disturbing thought!). Our well-meaning approach to life makes us cringe at such a conclusion, but, if I’m right(!), our refusal to endorse it should then count as a major obstacle in devising better solutions. Artem mentioned the desire not to “succumb to utopianism” (on Twitter), I agree. However, if we don’t start by accepting the principle above (in bold), I cannot see how our endeavour could not be utopian…

  7. artbourbon says:

    #2 (belongs in the sequence after Pablo’s last comment but it seems just as appropriate after Sergio’s latest response)

    “well served coffee and enjoyable slice of cake” – does that exist on trains in Britain these days? I’m amazed.

    I’m pretty much in agreement with everything Artem said (which should to some extent be obvious from my previous comment). And I have some issues with Sergio’s refutation of that. But I’m only going to deal with those indirectly in this post.

    Let’s get personal. My parents came from impoverished backgrounds and grew up in the inner cities of London and Glasgow during the great depression. Ironically they had the “privilege” of living through the second world war. That offered my mother an opportunity to find a career (nursing) that was normally not available to people with minimal education. My father, an active anti-fascist in the period before the war, came back from the war determined, as were most of his generation, not to accept the conditions they had known before. The newly elected Labour government saw addressing unequal privilege as a fundamental task (whether out of conviction or political necessity is up for debate). So my father moved out of the slums of Whitechapel to the suburbs where my mum happened to be working. He went to night school and eventually was able to get out of the rag trade and find a white collar job.

    For them, there was nothing more important than that I should make good use of the privileges they had missed but had made possible for me. Which is why (despite my assorted attempts to waste those privileges :)) I’m able to participate in this conversation now.

    At the same time they not merely believed everyone should have those privileges. They actually did something about it – through their work and the social and political activities in which they engaged.

    And none of that would have been possible, if there hadn’t been thousands of others working for the same goals, sharing experience, knowledge and at times material things. So yes, in many cases “whoever gets the best deal will….try to ensure his kin / loved ones will enjoy the same benefits” but there are many cases where the desire to ensure that, is not exclusive, where the achievement of privilege relative to what one or one’s forebears have known is a common cause – is necessary a common cause.

    This doesn’t make me right and you wrong, Sergio, but I submit it’s valid evidence with which to contest your assertions about the inevitability of privilege.

  8. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Stuart,
    kudos for making it personal. I don’t think we can be honest about this without doing the same :-(.

    Annoyingly and unsurprisingly, I don’t reach your same conclusion:

    I submit it’s valid evidence with which to contest your assertions about the inevitability of privilege.

    What your evidence tells *me* is that there are good reasons to make an effort and try to improve the current situation – we know it can make a difference. We can and do agree that currently we are very far from the optimal zone. We seem to disagree on where this optimal zone is, but I’m not sure, because my position is fluid (i.e. I’m actively trying to get it to settle!).

    Let us assume we disagree: you seem to take the stance that minimising inequality is always better. You even seem to think that eliminating all inequality is possible, at least on paper.
    Taking the extreme point of where my position might be (i.e. I’m actively emphasising our disagreement, as an exercise to try clarifying), I say that no, some inequality (given an organised society) is inevitable. Secondarily, I am not sure that minimising inequality is always (without exceptions) a good thing – this second point is my main interest, being unsure.
    The “without exception” bit is crucial, I’m using extremes and pure abstractions to test the limit cases, which in turn usually helps to cut down the space of available “solutions”. On the extremes, if we distribute all resources equally, what do we get? I can’t even begin to imagine such a situation in a way that isn’t openly oppressive and also self-consistent (i.e. imaginable). If you can, please help me out.

    Going on a less extreme scenario: let’s imagine a society where all “basic” needs of everyone are, by default, always met. Everyone receives enough food to live, shelter, health care and adequate education – no strings attached, no questions asked. In such a condition, I can probably agree that reducing unequal access to additional resources will probably work best.
    Problem is: the scenario above is utopian in more than one way. For starters, it never existed. Maybe it got approximated for limited times in limited areas, but it was sustained by systematic (and deliberate) exploitation elsewhere. Secondarily, the moment such a system is established, the list of what counts as “basic” needs starts growing, what counts as adequate will also become more demanding. Picture starts to become too complicated for me the moment I realise that different people will have different opinions on what should count as basic/adequate. Thus, I can’t avoid imagining such an ideal situation as macroscopically unstable. My (interim, very much tentative) conclusion is that such a scenario is therefore not informative, because utopian, not achievable. In a fitness landscape, it is not an attractor.

    This is a weak conclusion in support of my secondary claim (i.e. that the Goldilocks zone isn’t absolute zero), on pragmatic grounds. It is weak because in other contexts, striving to achieve something even if it is known to be an unachievable ideal makes perfect sense to me. Thus, hmm. I need to think some more!

    It’s possible that this instance of self-conscious-utopianism does not convince me in this case because I think we are much too far from approximating the ideal state. More precisely, I don’t see a path that leads from here to there without following very non linear paths. I.e. I don’t think that trying to go straight to (unreachable) destination will be beneficial. For example: I know I cannot fix the inequality problems of South Africa, but I do know I can (in minute amounts) try to make sure that UK and EU won’t promote policies that will make it worse. So I try to develop a narrative that facilitates the proximal aim(s). (Perhaps, I’m just thinking via written text).

  9. artbourbon says:

    Thing is, Sergio, I don’t see a lot of value in a purely propositional exchange about what is or is not in our various perspectives realistic or desirable. The purpose of my personal reflection was not, as I said, to show that I was right and you were wrong – merely to show that an alternative position is arguable. I deliberately used the word “contest”. Neither of us have any proof.

    You “can’t even begin to imagine” a situation in which all resources are distributed equally “in a way that isn’t openly oppressive”. I can’t imagine why it would be. I have no idea how I can help you to see it otherwise. What do you need? A description of how such a society would be organised – what it would look like? No way I’m doing that. It will be what the people who create it, make of it. It will be emergent. I can give you some proto-examples from the past, if you’re not shutting those out in advance. But it’s not really what interests me. I’m interested in finding ways of reducing privilege – starting by extending it to those who are simply excluded by circumstance. You seem to be too, so why not go with that and see where it leads?

    Theory is grey my friend but green is the tree of life. Overused but still valid.

  10. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Hello again,
    after some proper time off, I now might have enough clarity of mind to engage with hard subjects again.

    Stuart: I think I’m finally onboard, and I am planning a follow-up to explain why. What did it for me is that I’ve remembered an old heuristic that I’ve deployed here (last paragraph before the conclusion) and chimes with stuff left implicit in this (even older!) post. I think the same approach works perfectly for my current conundrum.

    Applied here, and in extreme synthesis, is becomes:
    Problem: specialisation requires unequal distribution of resources. Specialisation isn’t optional, if we want technology. Unequal distribution of resources *is* inequality. We can’t *remove* inequality.
    Thus, my hard to swallow conclusion in here was: we need to use inequality as well as possible, and at the very least, avoid wasting it.

    I haven’t really changed my mind on this, but I did realise there is one additional consideration that makes the whole situation significantly more palatable.

    We have an inherent and unavoidable source of inequality, we also know that letting inequality to naturally rise without limits is demonstrably unsustainable and inherently counter-productive. Thus, we can and should(!) always actively counter-balance the (metaphorical) forces that invariably make inequality & privilege rise (i.e. fight against them). [In terms of the first link, inequality is a problem that we want to manage.]

    In other words I (we?) do not need to worry that I/we might be overzealous in this second (and distinct) effort, because we can’t: counterbalancing one force will make the same mechanisms reappear in another form. So, as long as we are following the job description (try to fight against inequality, not merely against a current mechanism that generates it), we’ll be doing fine.

    It really is that simple (in grey/sterile theoretical terms), and my initial failure to see it is testament of how exhausted I was when I wrote the OP… It also accounts for my emotional need to stay away from pre-packaged ideologies: it neatly explains why doing so will not solve the problem once and for all. What’s not to like?

    [PS: No need to provide full-length replies, this is just a teaser to what I’m planning to write up properly when I’ll find enough time and energy!]

  11. […] considering that he did not win the last GE!). In the long run, if we want to stop out-of-control inequality and avoid widespread conflict or ecological suicide, we need to crush the prevailing neo-liberal […]

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