Gross inequalities in a time of pandemic

Here is a stunning juxtaposition in the April 2 print edition of the New York Times. Take a close look. The top panel updates readers on the fact that the city and the region are enduring unimaginable suffering and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 63,300 victims and 2,624 deaths (as of April 4) — and with hundreds of thousands facing immediate, existential financial crisis because of the economic shutdown. And only eight miles away, as the Sotheby’s “Prominent Properties” half-page advertisement proclaims, home buyers can find secluded luxury, relaxation, and safety, for residential estates priced at $32.9 million and $21.5 million. In case the reader missed the exclusiveness of these properties, the advertisement mentions that they are “located in one of the nation’s wealthiest zip codes”. And, lest the prospective buyer be concerned about maintaining social isolation in these difficult times, the ad reminds prospective buyers that these are gated estates — in fact, the $33M property is located on “the only guard gated street in Alpine”.

Could Friedrich Engels have found a more compelling illustration of the fundamental inhumanity of the inequalities that exist in twenty-first century capitalism in the United States? And there is no need for rhetorical exaggeration — here it is in black and white in the nation’s “newspaper of record”.

There are many compelling reasons that supported Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax. But here is one more: it is morally appalling, even gut-churning, to realize that $33 million for a home for one’s family (35,000 square feet, tennis court and indoor basketball court) is a reasonable “ask” for the super-wealthy in our country, the one-tenth of one percent who have ridden the crest of surging stock markets and finance and investment firms to a level of wealth that is literally unimaginable to at least 95% of the rest of the country.

Here is the heart of Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax (link):

Rates and Revenue

  • Zero additional tax on any household with a net worth of less than $50 million (99.9% of American households)
  • 2% annual tax on household net worth between $50 million and $1 billion
  • 4% annual Billionaire Surtax (6% tax overall) on household net worth above $1 billion
  • 10-Year revenue total of $3.75 trillion

Are we all in this together, or not? If we are, let’s share the wealth. Let’s all pay our fair share. Let’s pay for the costs of fighting the pandemic and saving tens of millions of our fellow citizens from financial ruin, eviction, malnutrition, and family crisis with a wealth tax on billionaires. They can afford it. The “65′ saltwater gunite pool” is not a life necessity. The revenue estimate of the Warren proposal is roughly proportionate to the current estimate of what it will cost the US economy to overcome the pandemic, protect the vulnerable, and restart the economy — $3.75 trillion. Both equity and the current crisis support such a plan.

Here is some background on the rising wealth inequalities we have witnessed in recent decades in the United States. Leiserson, McGrew, and Kopparam provide an excellent and data-rich survey of the system of wealth inequalities in the United States in “The distribution of wealth in the United States and implications for a net worth tax” (link). Since 1989 the increase in wealth inequality is dramatic. The top 10% owned about 67% of all wealth in 1989; by 2016 this had risen to 77%.

The second graph is a snapshot for 2016 (link). Both income and wealth are severely unequal, but wealth is substantially more so. The top quintile owns almost 90% of the wealth in the United States, with the top 1% owning about 40% of all wealth.

The website Inequality.org provides an historical look at the growth of inequalities of wealth in the US (link). Consider this graph of the wealth shares over a century of the top 1%, .1%, and .01% of the US population; it is eye-popping. Beginning in roughly 1978 the shares of the very top segments of the US population began to rise, and the trend continued through 2012 — with no end in sight. The top 1% in 2012 owned 41% of all wealth; the top 0.1% owned 21%; and the top 0.01% owned 11%.

We need a wealth tax, and Elizabeth Warren put together a pretty convincing and rational plan. This is not a question of “soaking the rich”. It is a question of basic fairness. Our economy and society have functioned as an express elevator for ever-greater fortunes for the few, with essentially no improvement for 60-80% of the rest of America. An economy is a system of social cooperation, requiring the efforts of all members of society. But the benefits of our economic system have gone ever-more disproportionately to the rich and the ultra-rich. That is fundamentally unfair. Now is the time to bring equity back into our society and politics. If Mr. Moneybags can afford a $33M home in New Jersey, he or she can afford to pay a small tax on his wealth.

It is interesting to note that social scientists and anthropologists are beginning to study the super-rich as a distinctive group. A fascinating source is Iain Hay and Jonathan Beaverstock, eds., Handbook on Wealth and the Super-Rich. Especially relevant is Chris Paris’s contribution, “The residential spaces of the super-rich”. Paris writes:

Prime residential real estate remains a key element in super-­rich investment portfolios, both for private use through luxury consumption and as investment items with anticipated long-­ term capital gain, often untaxed as properties are owned by companies rather than individuals. Most of the homes of the super-­rich are purchased using cash, specialized financial instruments and/or through companies, and ‘the higher the price of the property, the less likely buyers were to arrange traditional mortgage financing for the home acquisition. Whether buyers are foreign or domestic, cash transactions predominate at the higher end of the market’ (Christie’s, 2013, p. 14). Such transactions, therefore, never enter ‘national’ housing accounting systems and play no part in many accounts of aggregate ‘national’ house price trends. For example, the analysis of house price trends in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation UK Housing Review is based on data relating to transactions using mortgages or loans, and EU and OECD comparisons between countries are based on the same kinds of data (Paris, 2013b).

Also fascinating in the volume is Emma Spence’s study of the super-rich when at sea in their super-yachts, “Performing wealth and status: observing super-­yachts and the super-­rich in Monaco”:

In this chapter I focus upon the super-­yacht as a key tool for exploring how performances of wealth are made visible in Monaco. A super-­yacht is a privately owned and professionally crewed luxury vessel over 30 metres in length. An average super-­ yacht, at approximately 47 metres in length, costs around €30 million to buy new, operates with a permanent crew of ten, and costs around €1.8 million per year to run. Larger super-­yachts such as Motor Yacht (M/Y) Madame Gu (99 metres in length), or the current largest super-­yacht in the world M/Y Azzam (180 metres in length) cost substantially more to build and to run. The price to charter (rent) a super-­yacht also varies considerably with size, age and reputation of the shipyard in which it was built. For example, a typical 47-­metre yacht can range between €100 000 to €600 000 per week to charter, plus costs. At the most exclusive end of the super-­yacht charter industry costs are much higher. M/Y Solange, for example, is an 85-­metre newly built yacht (2013) from reputable German shipyard Lürssen, which operates with 29 full-­time crew, and is priced at €1 million plus costs to charter per week.  The super-­yacht industry is worth an estimated €24 billion globally (Rutherford, 2014, p. 51).

A course on democracy and intolerance

I am teaching a brand new honors course at my university called “Democracy and the politics of division and hate”. The course focuses on the question of the relationship between democracy and intolerance. As any reader of the world’s news outlets knows, intolerance and bigotry have become ever-more prominent themes in the politics of Western democracies – France, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, and – yes, the United States. These movements put the values of a liberal democracy to the test.

Here is the course description:

Democracy has been understood as a setting where equal citizens collectively make decisions about law and public policy in an environment of equality, fairness, and mutual respect. Political theorists from Rousseau to JS Mill to Rawls have attempted to define the conditions that make a democratic civil society possible. Today the world’s democracies are challenged by powerful political movements based on intolerance and division. How should democratic theory respond to the challenge of hate-based political movements? The course reexamines classic ideas in democratic theory, current sociological research on hate-based populism, and current strategies open to citizens in the twenty-first century to reclaim the values of tolerance and respect in their democratic institutions. The course is intended to provide students with better intellectual resources for understanding the political developments currently transforming societies as diverse as the United States, Germany, the Netherlands, India, and Nigeria.

The organizing idea is that democratic theorists have generally conceived of a democracy as a polity in which a sense of civic unity is cultivated that ensures a common commitment to the formal and substantive values of a democratic society — the equal worth and rights of all citizens, the rule of law, adherence to the constitution, and respect for the institutions of collective decision-making. (Josh Cohen provided an excellent analysis of Rousseau’s core philosophical ideas about democracy in Rousseau: A Free Community of Equalslink.) John Rawls captures this idea in Political Liberalism, where he introduces the idea of “political liberalism”:

A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines…. Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime. Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. (xvi)

This formulation is intended to capture the idea that a democracy always embraces groups of people who disagree about important things. These conflicting value frameworks are what he refers to as “comprehensive doctrines of the good”, and a liberal democracy is neutral among reasonable comprehensive doctrines.

So what is a “reasonable comprehensive doctrine”? Rawls’s conception amounts to precisely this: all such doctrines maintain a commitment to “the essentials of a democratic regime”. He refers to comprehensive doctrines that reject these commitments to political justice as irrational and “mad”:

Of course, a society may also contain unreasonable and irrational, and even mad, comprehensive doctrines. In their case the problem is to contain them so that they do not undermine the unity and justice of society. (xvi)

But here is an important point: Rawls seems to have a robust confidence in the idea that a society that satisfies the conditions of justice and political liberalism will evolve towards a greater degree of civic unity. This seems to imply that he believes that individuals and groups who adhere to their “unreasonable, irrational, and mad” comprehensive doctrines will be led to change their beliefs over time and will gradually come to accept the democratic consensus.

The problem that we consider in the course is that democratic societies seem to have evolved in the opposite direction: doctrines that reject the legitimacy of the fundamentals of liberal democracy (respect for the equality of all citizens and respect for the rule of law) — these doctrines appear to have rapidly gained ground in many democracies in Europe and now the United States. Instead of converging towards a “democratic consensus” where everyone recognizes the legitimacy, equality, and rights of all other citizens, many democracies have developed powerful political movements that reject all these commitments. These are the political movements of division and hate — or the movements of right-wing populism. Democracy depends fundamentally on the principle of tolerance of points of view different from our own. Does that mean that democracy must be “tolerant of the intolerant”, with no effective means of protecting its values and institutions against groups that would subvert its most basic principles?

So how do we take on this set of issues, which involve both political philosophy and the sociology of political mobilization and political psychology?

The course begins by immersing the students in some of the values that define democracy.We begin with John Stuart Mill’s short but influential 1859book, On Liberty. Mill postulates the equal worth and liberties of all citizens, and argues that a good democracy involves rule by the majority while scrupulously protecting the equal rights and freedoms of all citizens. (Notice the close agreement between this theory and the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which we also read.) We then consider the theory of a liberal society put forward by John Rawls in Political Liberalism, where Rawls argues that a democracy depends fundamentally upon a culture of respect for the equal worth and equal rights and liberties of all citizens. This implies that perhaps democracy cannot survive in the absence of such a culture.

This is the positive theory of democracy, as several centuries of philosophers have developed it.

Next we turn to the challenges these theories face in the contemporary world: the rise of hate-based populism in Europe and the United States, and the rising prevalence of racism, bigotry, and violence in many countries. And this is not just a Western problem — think of India, the world’s largest democracy, and the governing party’s inculcation of hate and violence against Muslims. Anti-semitism, anti-Muslim bigotry, and white supremacy are on the rise. The Front Nationale in France, the Alternative for Germany, and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands are all examples of political parties that have developed mass followings with appeals based on racism and division, and similar parties exist in most other European countries. And white supremacist organizations in the United States make the same appeals in our country as well.

The hard question for us is this: can our liberal democracies find ways of coping with intolerance and hate? Can we reassert the values of civility and mutual respect in ways that build a greater consensus around the values of democracy? Does a democracy have the ability to defend itself against parties who reject the moral premises of democracy?

The assigned readings in the course include several excellent and thought-provoking books from philosophy, sociology, and political theory. We begin with Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser’s book Populism: A Very Short Introduction, which gives an excellent short overview of the phenomenon of rightwing populism in Europe and the United States, along with a good discussion of the challenge of defining the concept of populism.

We then turn to two weeks on McAdam and Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America, along with a survey report from the Southern Poverty Law Center on the spread of racist and hate-based organizations in the United States. McAdam and Kloos provide an analysis of the evolution of the mainstream “conservative” political party since the Nixon presidency, and document through survey data and other evidence from empirical political science the rapid increase in racial antagonism in the party’s platforms and behavior when in office (linklink). They offer a convincing demonstration of the racism that underlies the activism of the Tea Party.

The next readings are Justin Gest’s The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link) and Kathleen Blee’s edited volume The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality (link). These books provide an ethnographical perspective on the appeal of right-wing extremism in western democracies, deriving from rapid economic change (deindustrialization) and demographic change (immigration and the rising percentage of populations of color in both Britain and the US). Blee’s volume sheds much light on the role of gender in political mobilization by the right across the spectrum, with substantially more women involved in extremists groups in the US than in Europe.

Next we turn to both longstanding and current strategies by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India to manage politics through antagonism against India’s Muslims. Paul Brass’s book The Production Of Hindu-Muslim Violence In Contemporary India is the primary source (link), and several good pieces of journalism about the current violence in India against Muslims help to fill in the details of the current situation (linklinklink).

The course ends with a consideration of Robert Putnam’s volume Better Together: Restoring the American Community, which makes the case for civic engagement and civic unity — but in a voice that appears a decade behind events when it comes to the virulence of hate-based activism.

This is a course that is entirely organized around an intensive and engaged student experience. Each session involves lively discussion and student presentations (which have been excellent), and the course aims at helping the students develop their own ideas and judgments. We all learn through open, honest, and respectful dialogue, and every session is engaging and valuable. Most importantly, we have all come to see that these issues of democracy, equality, and intolerance and bigotry are an enormous challenge for all of us in the twenty-first century that we must solve.

(For the first session students are asked to view several relevant videos on YouTube:

John Rawls Lecture 1, Modern Political Philosophy

Hate Rising: White Supremacy in America

Robert Putnam on Immigration and Diversity

Cas Mudde on Right-wing Populism

These videos set the stage for many of the topics raised throughout the course.)

The assault on democracy by the right

A democracy depends crucially upon a core set of normative commitments that are accepted on all sides — political parties, citizens, government officials, judges, legislators. Central among these is the idea of the political equality of all citizens and the crucial importance of maintaining equality in the availability of access to formal political involvement in democratic processes. In particular, the right to vote must be inviolate for every citizen, without regard to region, religion, gender, race, national origin, or any other criterion. John Rawls encapsulates these commitments within his conception of the political values of a just society in Political Liberalism.

The third feature of a political conception of justice is that its content is expressed in terms of certain fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society. This public culture comprises the political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public traditions of their interpretation (including those of the judiciary), as well as historic texts and documents that are common knowledge. (13) … A sense of justice is the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of social cooperation. Given the nature of the political conception as specifying a public basis of justification, a sense of justice also expresses a willingness, if not the desire, to act in relation to others on terms that they also can publicly endorse. (18)

The Voting Rights Act in 1965 was an important step in the development of racial equality in the United States for a number of reasons; but most important was the clear statement it made guaranteeing voting rights to African-American citizens, and the judicial remedies it established for addressing efforts made in various states or localities to limit or block the exercise of those rights. The act prohibited literacy tests for voting rights and other practices that inhibited or prevented voter registration and voter participation in elections.

However, the Supreme Court decision in 2013 (Shelby County v Holder) eliminated the fundamental force of the 1965 act by removing the foundation of the requirement of pre-clearance of changes in voting procedures in certain states and jurisdictions. This action appears to have had the effect of allowing states to take steps that reduce participation in elections by under-served minorities (link).

Also important is the idea that the formal decisions within a democracy should depend upon citizens’ preferences, not the expenditure of money in favor of or against a given candidate or act of legislation. The Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 in the case of Citizens United v Federal Election Commission found the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act to be unconstitutional because it restricted the freedom of speech of legal persons (corporations and unions). This ruling gave essentially unlimited rights to corporations to provide financial support to candidate and legislative initiatives; this decision in one stroke diminished the political voice of ordinary voters to a vanishing level. Big money in politics became the decisive factor in determining the outcomes of political disagreements within our democracy. (Here is a summary from the Washington Post on the effects of Citizens United on campaign spending; link.)

The 2014 book by Doug McAdam and Karina Kloos, Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America, is profoundly alarming for a number of reasons. They make clear the pivotal role that the politics of race have played in American electoral politics since the Nixon presidency. Most recently, the Tea Party social movement appears to be substantially motivated by racism.

The question is: where did this upsurge in “old-fashioned racism” come from? Based on the best survey data on support for the Tea Party, it seems reasonable to credit the movement for at least some of the infusion of more extreme racial views and actions into American politics. We begin by considering the racial attitudes of Tea Party supporters and what that suggests about the animating racial politics of the movement wing of the Republican Party. In this, we rely on two sources of data: the multi-state surveys of support for the Tea Party conducted by Parker and Barreto in 2010 and 2011 and Abramowitz’s analysis of the October 2010 wave of the American National Election Studies. (KL 5008)

Based on this survey data, they conclude:

Support for the Tea Party is thus decidedly not the same thing as conventional conservatism or traditional partisan identification with the Republican Party. Above all else, it is race and racism that runs through and links all three variables discussed here. Whatever else is motivating supporters, racial resentment must be seen as central to the Tea Party and, by extension, to the GOP as well in view of the movement’s significant influence within the party. (KL 5053)

Most alarming is the evidence McAdam and Kloos offer of a deliberate, widespread effort to suppress the voting rights of specific groups. Voter suppression occurs through restrictions on the voting process itself; and more systemically, it occurs through the ever-more-impactful ability of state legislators to engage in data-supported strategies of gerrymandering. And they connect the dots from these attitudes about race to political strategies by elected officials reflecting this movement:

Nor is the imprint of race and racism on today’s GOP only a matter of attitudes. It was also reflected in the party’s transparent efforts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters in the run-up to the 2012 election. It may well be that the country has never seen a more coordinated national effort to constrain the voting rights of particular groups than we saw in 2012. Throughout the country, Republican legislators and other officials sought to enact new laws or modify established voting procedures which, in virtually all instances, would have made it harder—in some cases, much harder—for poor and minority voters to exercise the franchise. (KL 5053)

Through gerrymandering the votes of a large percentage of the electorate are functionally meaningless; they live in districts that have been designed as “safe districts” in which the candidates of one party (most commonly the Republican Party, though there are certainly examples of Democratic gerrymandering as well) are all but certain to win election. Consider these completely deranged districts from Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina:

And nation-wide, the power of state legislatures to create gerrymandered districts has led to a lopsided political map, where only a few districts are genuinely competitive:

So the preferences of a given block of voters among candidates in a Republican safe district have zero likelihood of bringing about the election of the competing candidate. McAdam and Kloos are very explicit about the threat to democracy these efforts and the deliberateness with which the Republican Party has carried out these strategies over the past several decades. They are explicit as well in documenting the goal of these efforts: to suppress votes by racial groups who have traditionally supported Democratic candidates for office.

The efforts at voter suppression documented by McAdam and Kloos have continued unabated, even accelerated, since the 2014 publication of their book.

The hard question raised by Deeply Divided is not answered in the book, because it is very hard to answer at all: how will the public manage to claim back its rights of equality and equal participation? How will democracy be restored as the operative principle of our country?

Fascist attacks on democracy

The hate-based murders of at least nine young people in Hanau, Germany this week brought the world’s attention once again to right-wing extremism in Germany and elsewhere. The prevalence of right-wing extremist violence in Germany today is shocking, and it presents a deadly challenge to democratic institutions in modern Germany. Here is the German justice minister, quoted in the New York Times (link):

“Far-right terror is the biggest threat to our democracy right now,” Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, told reporters on Friday, a day after joining the country’s president at a vigil for the victims. “This is visible in the number and intensity of attacks.”

Extremist political parties like the Alternative for Germany and the National Democratic Party (linklink) have moved from fringe extremism to powerful political organizations in Germany, and it is not clear that the German government has strategies that will work in reducing their power and influence. Most important, these parties, and many other lesser organizations, spread a message of populist hate, division, and distrust that motivates some Germans to turn to violence against immigrants and other targeted minorities. These political messages can rightly be blamed for cultivating an atmosphere of hate and resentment that provokes violence. Right-wing populist extremism is a fertile ground for political and social violence; hate-based activism leads to violence. (Here is an excellent report from the BBC on the political messages and growing political influence of AfD in Germany (link).)

Especially disturbing for the fate of democracy in Germany is the fact that there is a rising level of violence and threat against local elected officials in Germany over their support for refugee integration. (Here is a story in the New York Times (2/21/20) that documents this aspect of the crisis; link.) The story opens with an account of the near-fatal attack in 2015 on Henriette Reker, candidate for mayor of Cologne. She survived the attack and won the election, but has been subject to horrendous death threats ever since. And she is not alone; local officials in many towns and municipalities have been subjected to similar persistent threats. According to the story, there were 1,240 politically motivated attacks against politicians and elected officials (link). Of these attacks, about 33% are attributed to right-wing extremists, about double the number attributed to left-wing extremists. Here is a summary from the Times story:

The acrimony is felt in town halls and village streets, where mayors now find themselves the targets of threats and intimidation. The effect has been chilling. 

Some have stopped speaking out. Many have quit, tried to arm themselves or taken on police protection. The risks have mounted to such an extent that some German towns are unable to field candidates for leadership at all. 

“Our democracy is under attack at the grass-roots level,” Ms. Reker said in a recent interview in Cologne’s City Hall. “This is the foundation of our democracy, and it is vulnerable.” 

This is particularly toxic for the institutions of democratic governance, because the direct and obvious goal is to intimidate government officials from carrying out their duties. This is fascism.

What strategies exist that will help to reduce the appeal of right-wing extremism and the currents of hatred and resentment that these forms of populism thrive on? In practical terms, how can liberal democracies (e.g. Germany, Britain, or the United States) reduce the appeal of white supremacy, nationalism, racism, and xenophobia while enhancing citizens’ commitment to the civic values of equality and rule of law?

One strategy involves strengthening the institutions of democracy and the trust and confidence that citizens have in those institutions. This is the approach developed in an important 2013 issue of Daedalus (link) devoted to civility and the common good. This approach includes efforts at improving civic education for young people. It also includes reforming political and electoral institutions in such a way as to address the obvious sources of inequality of voice that they currently involve. In the United States, for example, the prevalence of extreme and politicized practices of gerrymandering has the obvious effect of reducing citizens’ confidence in their electoral institutions. Their elected officials have deliberately taken policy steps to reduce citizens’ ability to affect electoral outcomes. Likewise, the erosion of voting rights in the United States through racially aimed changes to voter registration procedures, polling hours and locations, and other aspects of the institutions of voting provokes cynicism and detachment from the institutions of government. (McAdam and Kloos make these arguments in Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.)

Second, much of the appeal of right-wing extremism turns on lies about minorities (including immigrants). Mainstream and progressive parties should do a much better job of communicating the advantages to the whole of society that flow from diversity, talented immigrants, and an inclusive community. Mainstream parties need to expose and de-legitimize the lies that right-wing politicians use to stir up anger, resentment, and hatred against various other groups in society, and they need to convey a powerful and positive narrative of their own.

Another strategy to enhance civility and commitment to core democratic values is to reduce the economic inequalities that all too often provoke resentment and distrust across groups within society. Justin Gest illustrates this dynamic in The New Minority; the dis-employed workers in East London and Youngstown, Ohio have good reason to think their lives and concerns have been discarded by the economies in which they live. As John Rawls believed, a stable democracy depends upon the shared conviction that the basic institutions of society are working to the advantage of all citizens, not just the few (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement).

Finally, there is the police response. Every government has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence. When groups actively conspire to commit violence against others — whether it is Baader-Meinhof, radical spinoffs of AfD, or the KKK — the state has a responsibility to uncover, punish, and disband those groups. Germany’s anti-terrorist police forces are now placing higher priority on right-wing terrorism than they apparently have done in the past, and this is a clear responsibility for a government with duty for ensuring the safety of the public (link). (It is worrisome to find that members of the police and military are themselves sometimes implicated in right-wing extremist groups in Germany.) Here are a few paragraphs from a recent Times article on arrests of right-wing terrorists:

BERLIN — Twelve men — one a police employee — were arrested Friday on charges of forming and supporting a far-right terrorism network planning wide-ranging attacks on politicians, asylum seekers and Muslims, the authorities said.

The arrests come as Germany confronts both an increase in violence and an infiltration of its security services by far-right extremists. After focusing for years on the risks from Islamic extremists and foreign groups, officials are recalibrating their counterterrorism strategy to address threats from within.

The arrests are the latest in a series of episodes that Christine Lambrecht, the justice minister, called a “very worrying right-wing extremist and right-wing terrorist threat in our country.”

“We need to be particularly vigilant and act decisively against this threat,” she said on Twitter. (link)

The German political system is not well prepared for the onslaught of radical right-wing populism and violence. But much the same can be said in the United States, with a president who espouses many of the same hate-based doctrines that fuel the rise of radical populism in other countries, and in a national climate where hate-based crimes have accelerated in the past several years. (Here is a recent review of hate-based groups and crimes in the United States provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center; link.) And, like Germany, the FBI has been slow to place appropriate priority on the threat of right-wing terrorism in the United States.

(This opinion piece in the New York Times by Anna Sauerbrey (link) describes one tool available to the German government that is not available in the United States — strong legal prohibitions of neo-Nazi propaganda and incitement to hatred:

“There is the legal concept of Volksverhetzung,” the incitement to hatred: Anybody who denigrates an individual or a group based on their ethnicity or religion, or anybody who tries to rouse hatred or promotes violence against such a group or an individual, could face a sentence of up to five years in prison.

Because of virtually unlimited protection of freedom of speech and association guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, these prohibitions do not exist in the United States. Here is an earlier discussion of this topic (link).)

Ethical principles for assessing new technologies

Technologies and technology systems have deep and pervasive effects on the human beings who live within their reach. How do normative principles and principles of social and political justice apply to technology? Is there such a thing as “the ethics of technology”?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is a reasonably active literature on questions that sound a lot like these. (See, for example, the contributions included in Winston and Edelbach, eds., Society, Ethics, and Technology.) But all too often the focus narrows too quickly to ethical issues raised by a particular example of contemporary technology — genetic engineering, human cloning, encryption, surveillance, and privacy, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, and so forth. These are important questions; but it is also possible to ask more general questions as well, about the normative space within which technology, private activity, government action, and the public live together. What principles allow us to judge the overall justice, fairness, and legitimacy of a given technology or technology system?

There is an overriding fact about technology that needs to be considered in every discussion of the ethics of technology. It is a basic principle of liberal democracy that individual freedom and liberty should be respected. Individuals should have the right to act and create as they choose, subject to something like Mill’s harm principle. The harm principle holds that liberty should be restricted only when the activity in question imposes harm on other individuals. Applied to the topic of technology innovation, we can derive a strong principle of “liberty of innovation and creation” — individuals (and their organizations, such as business firms) should have a presumptive right to create new technologies constrained only by something like the harm principle.

Often we want to go beyond this basic principle of liberty to ask what the good and bad of technology might be. Why is technological innovation a good thing, all things considered? And what considerations should we keep in mind as we consider legitimate regulations or limitations on technology?

Consider three large principles that have emerged in other areas of social and political ethics as a basis for judging the legitimacy and fairness of a given set of social arrangements:

 A. Technologies should contribute to some form of human good, some activity or outcome that is desired by human beings — health, education, enjoyment, pleasure, sociality, friendship, fitness, spirituality, …

B. Technologies ought to be consistent with the fullest development of the human capabilities and freedoms of the individuals whom they affect. [Or stronger: “promote the fullest development …”]

C. Technologies ought to have population effects that are fair, equal, and just.

The first principle attempts to address the question, “What is technology good for? What is the substantive moral good that is served by technology development?” The basic idea is that human beings have wants and needs, and contributing to their ability to fulfill these wants is itself a good thing (if in so doing other greater harms are not created as well). This principle captures what is right about utilitarianism and hedonism — the inherent value of human happiness and satisfaction. This means that entertainment and enjoyment are legitimate goals of technology development.

The second principle links technology to the “highest good” of human wellbeing — the full development of human capabilities and freedoms. As is evident, the principle offered here derives from Amartya Sen’s theory of capabilities and functionings, expressed in Development as Freedom. This principle recalls Mill’s distinction between higher and lower pleasures:

Mill always insisted that the ultimate test of his own doctrine was utility, but for him the idea of the greatest happiness of the greatest number included qualitative judgements about different levels or kinds of human happiness. Pushpin was not as good as poetry; only Pushkin was…. Cultivation of one’s own individuality should be the goal of human existence. (J.S. McClelland, A History of Western Political Thought : 454)

The third principle addresses the question of fairness and equity. Thinking about justice has evolved a great deal in the past fifty years, and one thing that emerges clearly is the intimate connection between injustice and invidious discrimination — even if unintended. Social institutions that arbitrarily assign significantly different opportunities and life outcomes to individuals based on characteristics such as race, gender, income, neighborhood, or religion are unfair and unjust, and need to be reformed. This approach derives as much from current discussions of racial health disparities as it does from philosophical theories along the lines of Rawls and Sen.

On these principles a given technology can be criticized, first, if it has no positive contribution to make for the things that make people happy or satisfied; second, if it has the effect of stunting the development of human capabilities and freedoms; and third, if it has discriminatory effects on quality of life across the population it effects.

One important puzzle facing the ethics of technology is a question about the intended audience of such a discussion. We are compelled to ask, to whom is a philosophical discussion of the normative principles that ought to govern our thinking about technology aimed? Whose choices, actions, and norms are we attempting to influence? There appear to be several possible answers to this question.

Corporate ethics. Entrepreneurs and corporate boards and executives have an ethical responsibility to consider the impact of the technologies that they introduce into the market. If we believe that codes of corporate ethics have any real effect on corporate decision-making, then we need to have a basis in normative philosophy for a relevant set of principles that should guide business decision-making about the creation and implementation of new technologies by businesses. A current example is the use of facial recognition for the purpose of marketing or store security; does a company have a moral obligation to consider the negative social effects it may be promoting by adopting such a technology?

Governments and regulators. Government has an overriding responsibility of preserving and enhancing the public good and minimizing harmful effects of private activities. This is the fundamental justification for government regulation of industry. Since various technologies have the potential of creating harms for some segments of the public, it is legitimate for government to enact regulatory systems to prevent reckless or unreasonable levels of risk. Government also has a responsibility for ensuring a fair and just environment for all citizens, and enacting policies that serve to eliminate inequalities based on discriminatory social institutions. So here too governments have a role in regulating technologies, and a careful study of the normative principles that should govern our thinking about the fairness and justice of technologies is relevant to this process of government decision-making as well.

Public interest advocacy groups. One way in which important social issues can be debated and sometimes resolved is through the advocacy of well-organized advocacy groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Sierra Club, or Greenpeace. Organizations like these are in a position to argue in favor of or against a variety of social changes, and raising concerns about specific kinds of technologies certainly falls within this scope. There are only a small number of grounds for this kind of advocacy: the innovation will harm the public, the innovation will create unacceptable hidden costs, or the innovation raises unacceptable risks of unjust treatment of various groups. In order to make the latter kind of argument, the advocacy group needs to be able to articulate a clear and justified argument for its position about “unjust treatment”.

The public. Citizens themselves have an interest in being able to make normative judgments about new technologies as they arise. “This technology looks as though it will improve life for everyone and should be favored; that technology looks as though it will create invidious and discriminatory sets of winners and losers and should be carefully regulated.” But for citizens to have a basis for making judgments like these, they need to have a normative framework within which to think and reason about the social role of technology. Public discussion of the ethical principles underlying the legitimacy and justice of technology innovations will deepen and refine these normative frameworks.

Considered as proposed here, the topic of “ethics of technology” is part of a broad theory of social and political philosophy more generally. It invokes some of our best reasoning about what constitutes the human good (fulfillment of capabilities and freedoms) and about what constitutes a fair social system (elimination of invidious discrimination in the effects of social institutions on segments of population). Only when we have settled these foundational questions are we able to turn to the more specific issues often discussed under the rubric of the ethics of technology.

Hegel on labor and freedom

Hegel provided a powerful conception of human beings in the world and a rich conception of freedom. Key to that conception is the idea of self-creation through labor. Hegel had an “aesthetic” conception of labor: human beings confront the raw given of nature and transform it through intelligent effort into things they imagine that will satisfy their needs and desires.

Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel is especially clear on Hegel’s conception of labor and freedom. This is provided in Kojève’s analysis of the Master-Slave section of Hegel’s Phenomenology in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. The key idea is expressed in these terms:

The product of work is the worker’s production. It is the realization of his project, of his idea; hence, it is he that is realized in and by this product, and consequently he contemplates himself when he contemplates it…. Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. (Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel)

It seems to me that this framework of thought provides an interesting basis for a philosophy of technology as well. We might think of technology as collective and distributed labor, the processes through which human beings collectively transform the world around themselves to better satisfy human needs. Through intelligence and initiative human beings and organizations transform the world around them to create new possibilities for human need satisfaction. Labor and technology are emancipating and self-creating. Labor and technology help to embody the conditions of freedom.

However, this assessment is only one side of the issue. Technologies are created for a range of reasons by a heterogeneous collection of actors: generating profits, buttressing power relations, serving corporate and political interests. It is true that new technologies often serve to extend the powers of the human beings who use them, or to satisfy their needs and wants more fully and efficiently. Profit motives and the market help to ensure that this is true to some extent; technologies and products need to be “desired” if they are to be sold and to generate profits for the businesses that produce them. But given the conflicts of interest that exist in human society, technologies also serve to extend the capacity of some individuals and groups to wield power over others.

This means that there is a dark side to labor and technology as well. There is the labor of un-freedom. Not all labor allows the worker to fulfill him- or herself through free exercise of talents. Instead the wage laborer is regulated by the time clock and the logic of cost reduction. This constitutes Marx’s most fundamental critique of capitalism, as a system of alienation and exploitation of the worker as a human being. Here are a few paragraphs on alienated labor from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and size. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. The devaluation of the world of men is in direct proportion to the increasing value of the world of things. Labor produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the worker as a commodity – and this at the same rate at which it produces commodities in general.

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the labor’s realization appear as loss of realization that the worker loses realization to the point of starving to death. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects most necessary not only for his life but for his work. Indeed, labor itself becomes an object which he can obtain only with the greatest effort and with the most irregular interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the less he can possess and the more he falls under the sway of his product, capital.

All these consequences are implied in the statement that the worker is related to the product of labor as to an alien object. For on this premise it is clear that the more the worker spends himself, the more powerful becomes the alien world of objects which he creates over and against himself, the poorer he himself – his inner world – becomes, the less belongs to him as his own. It is the same in religion. The more man puts into God, the less he retains in himself. The worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object. Hence, the greater this activity, the more the worker lacks objects. Whatever the product of his labor is, he is not. Therefore, the greater this product, the less is he himself. The alienation of the worker in his product means not only that his labor becomes an object, an external existence, but that it exists outside him, independently, as something alien to him, and that it becomes a power on its own confronting him. It means that the life which he has conferred on the object confronts him as something hostile and alien.

So does labor fulfill freedom or create alienation? Likewise, does technology emancipate and fulfill us, or does it enthrall and disempower us? Marx’s answer to the first question is that it does both, depending on the social relations within which it is defined, managed, and controlled.

It would seem that we can answer the second question for ourselves, in much the same terms. Technology both extends freedom and constricts it. It is indeed true that technology can extend human freedom and realize human capacities. The use of technology and science in agriculture means that only a small percentage of people in advanced countries are farmers, and those who are enjoy a high standard of living compared to peasants of the past. Communication and transportation technologies create new possibilities for education, personal development, and self-expression. The enhancements to economic productivity created by technological advances have permitted a huge increase in the wellbeing of ordinary people in the past century — a fact that permits us to pursue the things we care about more freely. But new technologies also can be used to control people, to monitor their thoughts and actions, and to wage war against them. More insidiously, new technologies may “alienate” us in new ways — make us less social, less creative, and less independent of mind and thought.

So it seems clear on its face that technology is both favorable to the expansion of freedom and the exercise of human capacities, and unfavorable. It is the social relations through which technology is exercised and controlled that make the primary difference in which effect is more prominent.

Development ethnography and the life of the poor

Indian economists V. K. Ramachandran and Madhura Swaminathan have edited a highly interesting volume, Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, that will be of interest to anyone concerned with the progress of India in recent years. The book is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India, and all the essays are very good.

Ramachandran’s own contribution is a piece of what we might call “development ethnography”, a pair of interview (link) with the Tamil Nadu landless worker Gabriel Selvam. This case study is a valuable document for anyone interested in poverty and global justice. Ramachandran conducted interviews with Selvam at both ends of Selvam’s working life, in 1977 and 2017, and the experiences that Selvam describes are emblematic of the extreme poor in India and elsewhere throughout that forty-year period. Selvam has lived most of his life in rural Tamil Nadu, near the town of Gokilapuram. And Selvam’s life history illustrates many of the deep themes of enduring poverty and inequality in rural India — debt, bonded labor, inadequate access to land, caste, and extremely limited opportunities for collective action.

Usury involving a sum of only 100 rupees forced Selvam into a form of debt bondage to a landlord: “Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month, plus one sheet, a dhoti, a shirt and a thunda (towel-cloth) a year.” He worked 13 hours a day for the salary of Rs 65 per month. After four years the salary increased to Rs 100 per month. (At the 2000 exchange rate of Rs 45 / dollar this is about $2.22 / month.)

Debt bondage has been formally illegal in India since 1976. But Selvam’s condition is clearly one of debt bondage: “There is no choice, I can’t leave my mudalali [employer, landlord] unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

Largescale eviction from farm land is also a part of Selvam’s story. Green Revolution seeds and techniques made farm land more profitable, and landlords had an interest in evicting poor farmers from the land they had previously rented at low rents. Poor farmers became landless workers.

The persistent and debilitating disadvantages of caste in rural India are evident in this story as well. Selvam is of a scheduled caste, and it seems apparent that the wage differentials that he experienced throughout his working life had much to do with his dalit status.

Destitution-level housing is also a striking part of the story that Selvam tells. In 1977: “As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now, there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet.” In 2017, the time of the second interview, the hut has been completed: “it is completed and expanded now: a neat, whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker.”

In 2017 Selvam’s wage has also improved; he now earns Rs 4000 per month for hard agricultural labor — in today’s exchange rate, about $40 / month. As Selvam says, they are better off. And yet it is clear — “better off” in Selvam’s village still means poor access to education and healthcare, limited nutrition, an extremely low income, and a life of toil that few Americans can even imagine.

I hope that you will read the whole interview. It is a more powerful testament to the depth of poverty and inequality in rural India than any set of economic statistics could ever convey.

Here is a World Bank report that makes for excellent parallel reading alongside Ramachandran’s case history (Raji Jayaraman and Peter Lanjouw, “The Evolution of Poverty and Inequality in Indian Villages”; link).

Guest post: VK Ramachandran on details of life as a day laborer in India

[V. K. Ramachandran was a Professor of Economics at the Indian Statistical Institute, and is at present vice chairman of the State Planning Board of the state of Kerala. He is the author of Wage Labour and Unfreedom in Agriculture: An Indian Case Study. Previous discussions of Ramachandran’s work in Understanding Society can be found here (link, link, link, link), and here is an interview I conducted with VK in 2008; link.]

[Acknowledgement: Extracted from Ramachandran, V. K., and Madhura Swaminathan, (eds.) (2018), Telling the Truth, Taking Sides: Essays for N. Ram, Tulika Books, New Delhi. This is a set of essays dedicated to the impact and progressive legacy of N Ram, journalist, writer, and important voice of the Left in India.]

“Gabriel Selvam: A Biography of Work”

V. K. Ramachandran

Among the many the many things in which N. Ram was an early instructor (and I not good enough a learner) was on how to interview, take notes, edit copy, and present the results from conversation and observation.

NR was the first among us to meet Gabriel Selvam, and the description “upstanding young agricultural labourer” is his.

An Interview in Two Parts, 1977 and 2017

1977: Young Bonded Worker

G. Selvam (35) is an upstanding young agricultural labourer who has bonded himself as a pannaiyal (permanent farm servant) out of economic necessity. Selvam’s family is of the Parayar scheduled caste.

A loan of Rs 100 taken over six years ago from CT, a petty usurer, led directly to his present condition as farm servant. At that time, the loan was taken for subsistence needs and was perceived as a temporary expedient. On account of a 120 percent interest rate, the loan of Rs 100 became a liability of Rs 220 over a year. The usurer pressed Selvam, then 31 years old, to sell his house in order to repay the loan. Selvam, refusing to abandon the family house site, went around asking for a way to work off his debt. The opportunity presented itself in the form of the landlord SCC. This landlord, who was looking for a young and strong farm servant, was willing to advance the money to clear the debt, provided Selvam attached himself as a farm servant for a remuneration of Rs 65 per month plus one sheet and a dhoti, a shirt, and a towel-cloth (thundu) a year.

Selvam took an advance of Rs 100 for going to work as a farm servant, and used that to clear just under half his debt. Then, after the first month of work, he took a loan of Rs 120 to clear the debt.

Since then, that is, for six years, Selvam has been working for well over 13 hours a day. He worked at the salary of Rs 65 a month for four years. Two years ago, when paddy prices soared to nearly Rs 150 per 58-kilogram bag, the farm servants in the village asked their employers for a raise. Selvam was given a wage rise that was long overdue: in 1977 he was paid Rs 110 a month.

SCC, like some other big landlords in the village, has found it much to his advantage to hire a farm servant in this way. He has advanced small sums of money to Selvam over the years, sums always taken “temporarily,” but with no real chance of the debtor repaying the debt and getting out of his present condition. Selvam makes it clear that he is not paid anything near the remuneration he should be getting for this work. “There is no choice,” he says, “I can’t leave my mudalali (employer, landlord) unless I can clear my debt of Rs 300. I would certainly like to leave.”

In his childhood, Selvam was not as badly off as he is today. His father, Gabriel, was a poor or lower-middle peasant, cultivating surface-irrigated land that had been leased in from landlords of the village. His mother worked as a hired labourer.

His father sent Selvam to school. Selvam studied in the Mission School in Gokilapuram, down the road from where he lives today, up to the fifth class. He completed the sixth class at the NMR School in Gokilapuram. Selvam was a good student and his father sent him to Vatthalakundu, where Selvam studied in the seventh and eighth classes, finishing when he was 16 years old. He stayed at a hostel at Vatthalakundu, and his father sent him Rs 20 a month. Selvam returned to the village after finishing the eighth class. He can read and write Tamil and can still read some English.

Selvam’s father tilled 6 kuzhi (3.6 acres) of surface-irrigated land belonging to landlord ST on kuthagai (fixed rent) for 20 years. He also worked 1.5 acres of groundwater-irrigated land belonging to SP, a landlord of Uthamapalayam. Selvam also worked on the land leased in by the family. Selvam married when he was 20 years old. His wife, Alphonse, is from a family of tenant cultivators from Pudupatti in Uthamapalayam taluk.

In about 1967, there was a sharp decline in the agriculture conducted by the family. The surface-irrigated land had poor soil and bad drainage, and standing water after the rain affected the crop. The land was manured only for one crop, one of the reasons for the yield being poor. The groundwater-irrigated land had a well with plenty of water and had a pulley and rope to draw water with. But household cultivation was in decline, the family began to incur debt, and the age-old symbol of a peasant family heading towards destitution became apparent: the cattle owned by the family became thin and weak.

About the same time, eviction took place on a large scale in the village. Earlier, the paddy crops were the traditional parunnel and samba varieties; later, with the introduction of new seeds, yields were higher, and agriculture became more profitable for the landlords. There was also fear among them, Selvam said, that the tenants would assert their right to cultivate the land. Landlords brought pressure on the tenants to leave the land. Rents were raised, rack-rents were imposed on tenants. In some cases, landlords brought great pressure on tenants to leave, offering them small amounts of money to do so. The peasants were disunited, Selvam said, and, out of fear, accepted the money and left the land.

Agricultural Wage Work

Selvam made it clear that the big landlords can always bring pressure on agricultural labourers; as for agricultural labourers, there is little scope for their advance today. Opportunities for employment in some tasks have gone down since the arrival of tractors, Selvam pointed out. The tractor has robbed those with ploughs and bullocks of ploughing work, and those with carts and bullocks of work in basal manuring. Even during threshing, the tractor has deprived agricultural labourers of employment. While earlier, there would be four days’ work at the threshing-floor and four bullocks would be needed to trample the grain for the second threshing, now the tractor can be driven over the sheaves to complete the task in less than an hour.

Unemployment is high and wages are poor, and women’s wages have actually been brought down, from Rs 3 per day to Rs 2.50 per day. There was agitation by Communists five years ago in southern villages of the Valley, Selvam recalls, when men workers won an increase in their grain wages, from 4 measures per day to 5 measures, and women an increase to 3 measures for threshing.

While wages in the village do not vary directly with the caste of the worker, discrimination against the scheduled castes, the overwhelming majority of whom are landless labourers, is deeply entrenched. Most of the farm servants in the village are Dalit.

Selvam has an extremely busy working year. During the 1976-7 agricultural year, he worked on both crops of paddy on surface-irrigated land, in different operations in the cultivation of irrigated sorghum (cholam), finger millet (ragi), tomato, and banana on groundwater-irrigated land, and in little millet (samai) on unirrigated land. In addition to agricultural work every day, he did domestic tasks at the landlord’s house. Selvam’s wife Alphonse laboured at agricultural operations for 57 days in 1976-7, and earned Rs 158.70 as wages. She seeded and cleaned tamarind for 3 days, for which she earned Rs 7.50.

Selvam’s wage is lower than other farm servants in the village, some of whom are paid Rs 130 and Rs 140 by their landlord employers. But when Selvam asks for a wage increase, the landlord arrogantly insists: “I have already increased your wages. You used to get Rs 65, now you get 110.” The standard that SCC uses, Selvam says, is not the wage paid to other farm servants in the village, but the Rs 65 pittance that Selvam himself used to receive before he was paid Rs 110 a month.

When Selvam is unwell, the landlord may give Selvam a small amount of money to buy medicine, but he will not pay for treatment for Alphonse or the children when they fall ill.

As for his home, Selvam cannot afford to erect a complete hut. When he gets a small amount of money, he adds a row of bricks to the hut. Some months ago, he bought a door-frame. Now there is a door-frame, fixed with mud into a few rows of country-made brick, with no wall around it or roof above. The single room in the hut is 8 feet by 6 feet. “We do not know when this hut will be built,” Alphonse said. “We lay a few bricks, and it may be a few months before we can add more bricks. It may take years to complete the hut in this manner.”

With all this, Selvam must also face rudeness and shouts from the landlord, the loud arrogance of SCC as taskmaster of “his” farm servant.

“Life is difficult for me,” Selvam said. He sees his children at 5 a.m. (when he leaves the house), when the older children may be just beginning to wake up. It is seldom, and only in the slack season, that he comes home before they are asleep for the night. And the hours in between are filled with arduous, back-breaking labour that covers every task that an agricultural labourer in the village can perform.

I have seen Selvam, early in the morning, heaving farmyard manure on to a cart and driving the cart to the paddy-fields, unloading it in neat piles across the field. I have seen him, bare-chested, barefoot, and dressed in an old and torn lungi, with a soiled cloth on his head to protect him from the sun, walking with a hoe across his shoulder over the ridge east of the village on the road leading to SCC’s groundwater-irrigated field in neighbouring Anamalaiyanpatti. I have seen him at the field, cutting and clearing water channels before the electricity comes on and irrigation water rushes up; and in the banana field, hacking at the tough young shoots that grow by the banana trees, cutting dry and withered leaves off the tree, and straightening tree trunks with wooden props that have been chopped and shaped by him. I have seen him, in the evenings, working in SCC’s house, watering, feeding, and washing the cattle or chopping a tree trunk for firewood for SCC’s kitchen. I have seen him at the bus-stop in Uthamapalayam, straining to lift a motor pump, newly repaired, on to the carrier of a Gokilapuram-bound bus. Standing under a bus-shelter in Gokilapuram after 11 o’clock at night, I have heard the sound of a cart coming down the road from Anamalaiyanpatti. It is Selvam, urging the bullocks through pouring rain back to the house of SCC. I have seen him after 11.30 at night, rain smudging the red mud that clings to his face and body, entering his hut and eating gruel and pickle by the weak light of an oil lamp, and preparing to catch some sleep before the next day of labour begins.

Selvam states clearly that it is not “loyalty” that keeps him with the landlord. It is his debt and the difficulty of finding alternative employment if he were to leave. “I have heard of the union of agricultural labourers in East Thanjavur. A union is needed, unity of agricultural labourers is needed. If there were a union in Gokilapuram, I would join it.”

May 1977

2017: A Working Life

Selvam worked for a total of 13 years with SCC. When he left, he was paid a mere Rs 400 a month. Selvam said that about 4000 rupees were due to him and unpaid when he left SCC’s employment.

Selvam worked 15 years as a daily worker after he left the employment of SCC. Three years after he left, Selvam’s son Arokiyasami was married. Over the three years, Selvam spent one year as a worker in a cardamom estate in Parathodu in Kerala, owned by Shanmughavel of Pannaipuram.

Alphonse worked as a wage labourer all her working life, that is, until four years ago.

Ten years ago, Selvam began to work for Venkatesan, a retired college teacher. Selvam was hired at a wage of Rs 2000 a month. Venkatesan owns 10.8 acres of thottam land and 1.8 acres of nanjai land in the north of the village, on the banks of the Thamaraikulam irrigation tank, where he grows nendran banana and coconut.

Selvam comes to the field at 7 am every day, takes a break from about 11:00 to 2:30, and works again at the field till 6 pm. He takes care of the field, clears the channels for irrigation, works the locks of the pipes for drip irrigation, supervises and works with other wage workers at some operations (planting and harvest), and weeds and cleans the fields. He also keeps the main trunks of the banana trees free of unwanted side-shoots, and applies fertilizer and undertakes all other plant protection tasks.

After three years with the landlord, Selvam asked for a raise. His new wage was fixed at Rs 4,000 a month (the worker on the neighbouring field gets Rs 6,000 a month, he told us). The landlord agreed, and said that he would henceforth account for Selvam’s withdrawals against the new wage. For Selvam is not paid his wage on a fixed day every month. He takes money for expenses from the owner “whenever I need it,” for household expenses, for festivals. The employer says he is keeping an account; Selvam trusts him and says that he, too, keeps track of how much he has taken from the landlord. He estimates that he has credit of about Rs 10,000 with the landlord. There is no formal account of Selvam’s savings with the landlord.

Four years ago, Alphonse developed a swelling on her right knee. A doctor in Uthamapalayam gave her drugs and an injection, and the swelling “sank to her foot.” Blood and pus was drained with a large syringe from the foot. Alphonse was discharged from the hospital, and was told to spread an ointment on the wound. Selvam did this every day. Alphonse began to scratch the itchy wound before it had healed completely. She eats betel leaf and nuts with lime, and the lime paste on her finger began to inflame the wound. It turned septic. Selvam took her in his son Sekhar’s autorickshaw to Cumbum, where the doctor said that she needed emergency treatment at Theni. Alphonse was taken by ambulance to the Theni Government Medical College and Hospital, where the doctors advised emergency surgery. She had a second surgery, followed by a skin graft.

In the post-operative ward, Selvam watched people on the other beds, and began to realise the importance of dressing Alphonse’s wound correctly – that it was a task that needed an expert, something he could not do himself. He hired a person to change the bandage – at Rs 50 a day – for the three months they spent in the hospital.

Alphonse is back home now. She can move a bit – to the sitting platform in front of the house, to change her clothes, to go to the bathroom; but not more than that. “We do not know how long she will survive. She has never done anyone any wrong. When she goes, it will be to heaven.”

The Children

Arokiasamy (50), the oldest child of Selvam and Alphonse, works as a mason and has a small business as a contractor for constructing small houses. His wife, Sumathi, has a tenth class school-leaving certificate, and works in the panchayat office as a data collector. They have two children, a son, Maniprathi (22), now a student at a polytechnic in Namakkal, and a daughter, Sunitha (21). Sunitha completed a B. A. degree and is now married. Her husband works on the staff of a tea estate owned by N Ramakrishnan, former MLA from Cumbum.

Arokiamary (48), the only daughter of Selvam and Alphonse, is now almost completely blind. She looks after her parents and brother, the much-loved carer in the home.

Shekhar (46) lives in Gokilapuram. He owns an autorickshaw, from which he which earns an income of Rs 500 to Rs 1000 a day. His wife, Thilakam, is a manual worker in agriculture and at non-agricultural tasks. Their children, Merlyn Marcia and Praveen, their grandparents’ joy, study in class 1 and class 2 in the English-language medium section of the Savarimuthu Udayar Memorial Higher Secondary School, a reputed school in the neighbouring village of Rayappanpatti.

Vedamuthu (44) stays at home with his parents. He is a person with intellectual disabilities, and is unable to go regularly to work.

Xavier (41), the youngest son of the family, works at loading and unloading bags of rice at the government civil supplies godown in Uthamapalayam. His wife Muthuarokiyam and he are now residents of Uthamapalayam, where his children Akhilesh, Vimalesh, and Pratibha go to school. Xavier earns 600 rupees a day, and an extra 1000 rupees a month for the manual work at the godown.

Forty Years On

Selvam and family live today in the house whose initial construction costs led him into bondage in 1977. It is completed and expanded now, a neat whitewashed structure that has the meagre furniture and appurtenances of a house that is still, after all, the house of a full-time rural manual worker. They were exploited and extremely poor – near destitute – in 1977. Today, they are still poor, Selvam’s wages are low, and he has no knowledge of how much of his earned wages are held by his employer. But he is no longer destitute, no longer in bondage, and no longer at the mercy of a harsh and cruel landlord of the old type.

They are better off now than they were in 1977 – oh yes, of course we are, Selvam says. Our house is complete, and we never go hungry, we have special things to eat: egg curry twice a week, chicken on Sundays, fish once in about twenty days. Thanks to the public system for the distribution of cereal, there is enough rice for the family. The house has been electrified (Selvam says that they received their electricity connection at the same time, conveniently, as their son Arokiasami’s wedding).

I have continued to meet Selvam over the years. I was associated with resurveys of Gokilapuram village in 1986 and 1999, and continue to be interested in changing agrarian relations in the village and region. I return to the Cumbum Valley regularly for tasks connected with the Gokilapuram Educational Trust, an organisation of which the honoree of this volume is a founder trustee. Travel to the Valley gives me an opportunity to keep in touch with Selvam; as we grow older, we grow more conscious of the value of old friendships.

Selvam asks me if I remember the little kerosene lamp (of course I do — made of tin and with a flimsy glass chimney) that I used during our survey in 1977. I used it after dark during conversations and interviews in homes that had no electricity. You gave it to me when you left the village after the survey, he says. After electricity came to the house Selvam stored the lamp deep in a loft, where it remains today. He keeps it as a reminder of his friend — and of the days when they had only a single lamp for light in a half-constructed house.

December 2017

The second American revolution

The first American Revolution broke the bonds of control exercised by a colonial power over the actions and aspirations of a relatively small number of people in North America in 1776 — about 2.5 million people. The second American Revolution promises to affect vastly larger numbers of Americans and their freedom, and it is not yet complete. (There were about 19 million African-Americans in the United States in 1960.)

This is the Civil Rights revolution, which has been underway since 1865 (the end of the Civil War); which took increased urgency in the 1930s through the 1950s (the period of Jim Crow laws and a coercive, violent form of white supremacy); and which came to fruition in the 1960s with collective action by thousands of ordinary people and the courageous, wise leadership of men and women like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When we celebrate the life and legacy of MLK, it is this second American revolution that is the most important piece of his legacy.

And this is indeed a revolution. It requires a sustained and vigilant struggle against a powerful status quo; it requires gaining political power and exercising political power; and it promises to enhance the lives, dignity, and freedoms of millions of Americans.

This revolution is not complete. The assault on voting rights that we have seen in the past decade, the persistent gaps that exist in income, health, and education between white Americans and black Americans, the ever-more-blatant expressions of racist ideas at the highest level — all these unmistakeable social facts establish that the struggle for racial equality is not finished.

Dr. King’s genius was his understanding from early in his vocation that change would require courage and sacrifice, and that it would also require great political wisdom. It was Dr. King’s genius to realize that enduring social change requires changing the way that people think; it requires moral change as well as structural change. This is why Dr. King’s profoundly persuasive rhetoric was so important; he was able to express through his speeches and his teaching a set of moral values that almost all Americans could embrace. And by embracing these values they themselves changed.

The struggle in South Africa against apartheid combined both aspects of this story — anti-colonialism and anti-racism. The American civil rights movement focused on uprooting the system of racial oppression and discrimination this country had created since Reconstruction. It focused on creating the space necessary for African-American men and women, boys and girls, to engage in their own struggles for freedom and for personal growth. It insisted upon the same opportunities for black children that were enjoyed by the children of the majority population.

Will the values of racial equality and opportunity prevail? Will American democracy finally embrace and make real the values of equality, dignity, and opportunity that Dr. King expressed so eloquently? Will the second American revolution finally erase the institutions and behaviors of several centuries of oppression?

Dr. King had a fundamental optimism that was grounded in his faith: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But of course we understand that only long, sustained commitment to justice can bring about this arc of change. And the forces of reaction are particularly strong in the current epoch of political struggle. So it will require the courage and persistence of millions of Americans to these ideals if racial justice is finally to prevail.

Here is an impromptu example of King’s passionate commitment to social change through non-violence. This was recorded in Yazoo City, Mississippi in 1966, during James Meredith’s March against Fear.

Populism’s base

Steve Bannon may have lost his perch in the White House and Breitbart; but the themes of white supremacy, intolerance, bigotry, and anti-government extremism that drive radical nationalist populism survive his fall. In The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality Justin Gest attempts to explain how this movement has been able to draw support from white working class men and women — often in support of policies that are objectively harmful to them. Here is how he describes his central concern:

In this book, I suggest that these trends [towards polarization] intensify an underlying demographic phenomenon: the communities of white working class people who once occupied the political middle have decreased in size and moved to the fringes, and American and European societies are scrambling to recalibrate how they might rebuild the centrist coalitions that engender progress.

The book makes use of both ethnographic and survey research to attempt to understand the political psychology of these populations of men and women in Western Europe and the United States — low-skilled workers with limited education beyond secondary school, and with shrinking opportunities in the economies of the 2000s.

A particularly interesting feature of the book is the ethnographic attempt Gest makes to understand the mechanisms and content of this migration of political identity. Gest conducted open-ended interviews with working class men and women in East London and Youngstown, Ohio in the United States — both cities that were devastated by the loss of industrial jobs and the weakening of the social safety net in the 1970s and 1980s. He calls these “post-traumatic cities” (7). He addresses the fact that white working class people in those cities and elsewhere now portray themselves as a disadvantaged minority.

There and elsewhere, the white working class populations I consider are consumed by a nostalgia that expresses bitter resentment toward the big companies that abandoned their city, a government that did little to stop them from leaving, and a growing share of visible minorities who are altering their neighborhoods’ complexion. (10)

The political psychology of resentment plays a large role in the populations he studies — resentment of government that fails to deliver, resentment of immigrants, resentment of affirmative action for racial minorities. The other large idea that Gest turns to is marginality — the idea that these groups have that their voices will not be heard and that the powerful agents in society do not care about their fates.

Rather, this is to say that—across the postindustrial regions of Western Europe and North America—white working class people sense that they have been demoted from the center of their country’s consciousness to its fringe. And many feel powerless in their attempts to do something about it. (15)

And resentment and marginality lead for some individuals to a political stance of resistance:

Unimpressed with Labour’s priorities, profoundly distrustful of government, and unwilling to join forces with working class immigrants, Barking and Dagenham’s working class whites are now engaged in a largely unstructured, alternative form of minority politics. They tend to be focused on local affairs, fighting for scarce public resources and wary of institutionalized discrimination against them. The difficulty has been having their claims heard, and taken seriously. (71)

The resentments and expressions of marginality in Youngstown are similar, with an added measure of mistrust of large corporations like the steel companies that abandoned the city and a recognition of the pervasive corruption that permeates the city. Here is Evelyn on the everyday realities of political corruption in Youngstown:

The more I saw, the more I realized that money can buy your way out of anything. Then you see your sheriff get indicted, your congressman dishonored, our prosecutor in prison, and a mayoral nominee with a cloud over his head. The Valley has been embroiled in political corruption for a long time, and people just look out for themselves. It makes you sick. You don’t see it firsthand, the corruption, but you know it’s there. (128)

The overriding impression gained from these interviews and Gest’s narrative is one of hopelessness. These men and women of Youngstown don’t seem to see any way out for themselves or their children. The pathway of upward mobility through post-secondary education does not come up at all in these conversations. And, as Case and Deaton argue from US mortality statistics (link), social despair is associated with life-ending behaviors such as opioids, alcohol abuse, and suicide.

Gest’s book lays the ground for thinking about a post-traumatic democratic politics — a politics that is capable of drawing together the segments of American or British society who genuinely need progressive change and more egalitarian policies if they are to benefit from economic progress in the future. But given the cultural and political realities that Gest identifies among this “new minority”, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that crafting such a political platform will be challenging.

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