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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tradition privileged the connection between political principles and economic conditions. They saw that the very conception of citizenship—broadly defined as the participation in the political community and the political rights that it bestowed—was put at risk once the maldistribution of material forms of life worsened. They may not have given voice to the conditions of slavery in the South, and they were indifferent to the inequalities brought about by a gendered division of labor. But their

was in fact generated. It is usually assumed that eighteenth-century American political ideas about inequality were largely concerned with the problem of political inequality—with the rights of different citizens to participate in the political sphere—more than with the problems of a lack or inequality of property. Politics was the nexus where the dimensions of social power clashed, and, as a result, economic inequalities were seen as bound up with political inequalities in two ways. First, there

that can be derived through wealth since he points to the ways that private wealth can distort the laws and workings of republican government. “When one person or a few stand out from the crowd as richer and more prosperous, then, as a result of their haughty and arrogant behavior, there arises [a government of one or a few], the cowardly and weak giving way and bowing down to the pride of wealth.”40 Cicero is able to point to the deformation of republican government under the influence of wealth

much of the radicalism that was inspired by the liberal movement as a whole. Markets were seen in the eighteenth century as a means of liberating citizens from the burdens of feudal obligation as well as a way of freeing their creativity and ensuring a sense of security; republican themes sought to guarantee a sense of civic cohesion and to prevent the ascendance of unaccountable authority. Individuals could not, the argument went, be safe and free unless there were republican institutions to

inequality—figures such as Langton Byllesby, Thomas Skidmore, Orestes Brownson, and others—the initial insight that drove the most robust critiques of economic inequality in American thought was that inequality was generated not simply by market relationships but specifically by the new economic system itself and the way it shaped, indeed, distorted previous market relationships. The problem was—as Marx would later identify it—institutional in nature; inequality was generated by the production

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