Friday, November 09, 2012
Consciousness of Class and Power
Ironically, considering the subject matter, Eric A. Schutz's Inequality and Power: The Economics of Class is crazy expensive! The price puts the book way out of reach for most general readers who would benefit from its analysis. The price seems hard to justify, as there are no colorful illustrations or illuminated text or gold leaf or other features that would drive up the cost of the book. Not even cover art: the book has an austere blue cover.
My interest in the book was aroused upon reading a lengthy review by Michael Yates, an economist and an associate editor at the Monthly Review. Yates wrote a book on unions and labor organizing that I found very helpful, and his blog is excellent, so his reflection on the book persuaded me to look for it. I found a copy on E-bay at a price I could handle.
Here we enter the magical realm of staggering coincidence. When the book arrived, I opened it to the frontispiece and discovered that I had acquired Michael Yates's own copy: there was his name and date, and throughout the book were his notes and comments, all scrawled in the margins in black pen. So I had the peculiar opportunity of reading the book along with Yates.
My interest in this stuff has to do with becoming conscious of a hidden process that is at work in all societies -- not just the one where I live, although that is naturally my first concern. It is related to my long-standing practice of zen, another ongoing topic of this blog. Here is the briefest statement I can make about the connection:
Just as there are hidden ideas held by individuals that justify and re-create themselves perpetually, and shape our consciousness of self...
...so there are also hidden ideas held by societies that justify and re-create themselves perpetually, and shape our consciousness of the world.
The latter is not necessarily a matter of interest to most Buddhists, but for the one Buddhist I speak for, it is quite interesting. There are hidden ideas which, behind the curtain of consciousness, lead us to participate in social arrangements that determine the circumstances of our lives, the choices that are available to us, and even the ability to think about and speak about what is happening.
In other words, this is about consciousness. Not just on the nature of "I" -- "Big I" and "Small I" and how these ideas shape our view of the world -- but also the nature of community, society, country.
Inequality is no doubt the cause of widespread suffering. Inequality is sustained by the way our society is organized. What are the ideas that lead us to organize and cooperate with a society that is so wasteful of human lives and the eco-system that sustains human life?
Economics is a profession (often presenting itself as a science, although this is arguable) that provides theoretical justification for the ways we make stuff, or own stuff that makes money for us, distribute stuff we make, and what we do with profits or rents. It has a lot to do with the inequalities that cause suffering, and with large-scale activities that are changing the ecology on which our civilization depends. The profession also provides an ideological framework, a justification, for how and why we do these things.
In terms that a general reader can follow, Schutz presents the mainstream economic framework, and then pulls it apart to reveal the fractures in its analysis, and in particular its studied ignorance of social class as an outcome (and determinant) of power. The bias in economic orthodoxy, toward a naive theory of individual choices, ignores the constraints and inequality of opportunity and, how income and wealth are concentrated to those who wield more power, and use that power to maintain and escalate inequality.
We are dealing, in other words, with class -- and class is an expression of power in an active relationship, constantly recreating itself. The group that is dominant uses its power to reinforce the social and property arrangements that maintain and expand its power. It is an excellent analysis undertaken within the terms of neoclassical economics itself, exposing the presuppositions that prejudice its theories -- and the ignorance of power.
It is undertaken with intellectual honesty, under terms acceptable in mainstream economics; and the technical material is not overwhelming for a general reader who takes some time.
How I dearly wish this book could be made available as a free download. It is not that Schutz does not deserve to be compensated for his own labor, for surely he does; but for the very people whose plight the book explains, the book -- and its constructive policy suggestions -- is out of reach.
An entrenched condition, indeed.