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The inherent violence of wealth

This is a belated, and long-percolated response to a blog post by my friend Ryan Dowell Baum. I am going to focus my discussion on one particular point that Ryan makes in his post:

"The problem with liberal politics is that it incorrectly assumes that by voting to raise taxes and expand social programs, the American people are legitimately and voluntarily offering up their government’s money to provide for the needs of others. The flaw in this thinking is that it forgets that government has no money of its own, because government does not produce wealth. It only takes, by force, from those who do (or borrows from other governments, who take, by force, from those who do). And in the US, the government disproportionately takes from the rich. So when middle-class Americans vote to raise taxes to serve the poor, it is not primarily their money, or their government’s, that they are voluntarily offering up. They are manipulating the state into taking other (wealthier) people’s money against their will, under threat of imprisonment, and giving it to less wealthy people. This, it seems to me, is violence."

What I'm about to say is probably too radical for most people, Ryan included. And that's fine - I don't mind occupying the "lunatic fringe" for this. I can't begin to express how deeply core this philosophy is to me. For all of my life, I have had a deep sense that the way things were arranged in our capitalist society were very wrong. As a child of relative privilege, this sense did not come from a feeling of having been deprived in comparison to others as I grew up. I'm not sure where my sense of equality comes from, exactly - it is so inherent in my being. Perhaps it comes a bit from my parents - but definitely not completely. Perhaps it comes from my reading of the Bible, both as a child and as an adult - but it's not that either, since I do not take the Bible literally in any way, and I wouldn't even say at this point that it is the major source of my moral compass. But I could indeed argue that this is a philosophy that Jesus would likely agree with. Anyway, maybe it is just that this is core to the being whose soul inhabits this body. Who knows. 

My philosophy is that all of creation, and in particular for us on Earth, all of the energy of our star, and all of the resources that come from that energy, is no ones to own or control. No one on this planet - not even any one species - has the right to own or control any part of creation. That is my starting point, and as you can imagine, that has pretty big implications for how far off we are from that ideal.

This planet does not have infinite resources. Only a tiny fraction of the energy of our star makes it to our planet. There are reserves of that energy stored underneath the ground in the form of the decomposed remains of plant life millions of years in our past. There are minerals of varied sorts under the Earth that we use. All of these are finite. 

Wealth is basically the accumulation of those resources by individuals or groups of individuals. And that accumulation is always at the expense of others, because the fact of these finite resources means that economics - the use and distribution of those resources - is a zero-sum game. The idea of constant and infinite economic growth is false.

Sometimes, that wealth is at the expense of future beings - like our profligate use of fossil fuels (for which I am guilty). But often, that wealth is at the expense of current humans or other beings. I would argue anyone who has spent their life accumulating massive wealth has done it in a way that created and/or accentuated the present or future suffering of others - whether it be exploiting resources such as Coltan, or employing people at non-living wages, or allowing products to be made with slave or child labor. And many people (including many individuals in industrialized countries) have lived their lives in ways that create or accentuate the suffering of others in other parts of the world, or in the future. This is the inherent violence of wealth

In order for capitalism to work, labor costs must remain relativey low. The two ways that happens is that 1) jobs get moved to regions with lower wages, and 2) there must be some level of unemployment, so that there are people who are willing to work for lower wages just so that they can survive. Capitalism requires growth, and that growth has largely come from the use of fossil fuels, as well as other finite resources of the Earth. This is the inherent violence of capitalism.

In our country, we have tried to mitigate this to some extent by asking those who are more wealthy to pay for programs for those who are either unable to work because of age, health (physical or mental), unemployment, or who, for reasons rarely of their own making, are caught in cycles of poverty. To call this policy violence completely ignores the violence of wealth creation. 

We are in deep shit. The United States and the industrialized world is in economic deep shit that it won't get out of because we have hit our resource limits. The planet is in environmental deep shit. And we haven't woken up to the fact that economic systems that revolve around the accumulation of wealth are the culprits. (By the way, most forms of communism that have existed so far, which are simply systems of state-sponsored wealth accumulation, are just as problematic, and are just as inherently violent.)

 

Comments

Beautifully and succinctly stated. Thanks!

Well said. I can certainly agree with this idea that we don't have the right to own. My thinking is that the antidote to the violence of wealth is the concept of trusteeship that was the foundation of Gandhian economics. Here's the definition of it copied from Metta Center's site. (I like how it mentions that it provides a means for redistribution without forcibly taking from the rich.)

TRUSTEESHIP

This key component of Gandhian economics could be called the nonviolent equivalent of ownership. Gandhi borrowed the concept from English law. It means that one is the trustee, not the owner, of one’s possessions, or ultimately one’s talents or capacities. All these are to be used for the good of society as a whole, which ultimately includes one’s own welfare. Under this system, material goods are no longer felt to be status symbols that are imagined to add to our worth. Trusteeship thus becomes an effective way to combat overconsumption, with all its ills (including for the consumer). Once trusteeship catches on it will be relatively easy to rebalance the economy and put it in the service of real needs. For Gandhi (among others), owning more than necessary inevitably means taking necessities from others: “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
The beauty of trusteeship as a tool for change is that it gives us a way to rebalance the economy without forcibly expropriating goods from the wealthy (which they seem to dislike, and forcibly resist). People can, in course of time, be educated about trusteeship and persuaded to adopt it, but they should not be coerced into doing so. Not if we want the change to last.

In the end, the sense of trusteeship can be deepened until one regards his or her own life as a trust, not to be used for oneself alone but for the good of the human family. At that verge of detachment the economic becomes the spiritual, and as Michael Sonnleitner has shown in Gandhi’s Vocabulary, that is typical of all the Mahatma’s main operational concepts.

Thank you so much for this, Michelle! I would also add that the wealth that is often accumulated at others' expense is also cumulative...so that the past remains with us in the present, and if policies are not dramatically changed, the past and present inequities will also remain in the future.

The reason I see no violence in redistribution from the rich to the poor is because I think it is a flawed assumption to think that the resources being redistributed were acquired through just means. Ryan seems to be arguing that two wrongs don't make a right and that just because resources were wrongfully acquired doesn't mean they can be seized in return. This is where I think your philosophy is deep and beautiful. I will be reflecting on it more in days to come.

My approach to these issues in recent years has been a turn to the "r" word -- reparations. The reason I find reparations so compelling as philosophy and praxis is that there is a material commitment to create equity, and there is a spiritual/philosophical shift required by those in positions of domination, frequently the wealthy, frequently white people, frequently Americans.

Reparations provides an alternative to one of my major objections to Ryan's post, which is the notion of voluntary giving. Or the notion of charity. That notion enables the giver to position him/herself in a morally superior way, sometimes expressed as going above and beyond what could be expected, sometimes expressed as being an ultra-embodiment of Christianity, etc. Or maybe in some cases not even morally superior, but moral, acting out of benevolence. But in many of these cases, what is being "given" is not ours to give! It was acquired by stealing it from others. And I believe one thing that is powerful about reparations is that it reframes things away from "charity" or "aid" by drawing attention to the policies of the past and present that put certain people in positions with resources to "give" in the first place. So that we start thinking about it not as "giving" but as "returning."

To vote for or advocate for policies to redistribute the resources is not a reverse stealing, it is the creation of conditions for truly reciprocal relationships. And that is what I yearn for most of all. A world in which truly reciprocal relationships are possible because relations of domination and inequity have been overcome.

This notion of reverse stealing strikes me as very similar to the notion of reverse racism that is happening as white people are feeling threatened by moves towards greater racial justice/equity. It is no accident that even as the racial income gap has narrowed in the U.S., the racial wealth gap remains enormous; it is no accident that the countries (and/or populations of countries) which were built on the resources and labor of colonization (settler or administrative) are wealthier than countries which were colonized.

I don't want to discourage individual/community goodwill and sharing and such. But I think there is something very powerful in the potential of reparations to decolonize (or deimperialize, if you will) the minds of people of privilege. Because reparations gets us away from the idea that we are acting out of benevolence and that it is an individual choice to make. It recognizes that there have been deep collective wrongs perpetrated, whose legacies persist to these days, and for which the government and corporations do indeed hold direct responsibility. And, in regards to how taxation affects individual citizens, it asks us to recognize that these collective wrongs have collectively benefited various groups of people (white people, for example) in inequitable ways, and that thus those who have benefited from these violent systems (whether through inheriting the wealth of their ancestors or through their own practices/positions in global relations and economies) return what is not rightfully theirs in order to assist those who are not rightfully poor.

Reparations also asks us to recognize that, in most cases, we could never give back as much as we have taken, but that we must return what we can and ask for debt forgiveness for the rest. And we must change our policies so that future cycles of accumulation by dispossession don't continue happening.

Sorry, this has ended up written in a somewhat rambling way...it is late and I have had a glass of wine! But I was having a strong emotional reaction to all this and thought I'd add a few thoughts to the conversation, even if they are off the cuff...

Much love to you!

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