Corey Robin recently in a post entitled " Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness for a Hundred Years"
In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.
The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.
In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.
It took until the late 19th Century, early 20th century before even the most progressive minds in the Anglo American world figured out that poverty for most people is not a sign of their moral turpitude. The famine in Ireland? It was ordained by God, and the Irish heathens deserved it. Debtors prisons, work houses, the concept of moral hazard: these are all products of a social imagination dominated Victorian economic moralism. The old Catholic idea that the poor were closest to God gave way in the modern period in the capitalist countries to the Calvinist idea that your wealth was an indicator of your favor with God. At least in the first model, the rich had a sense of their moral responsibility for the poor. In the Calvinist model, the immiseration of the poor was their getting what they deserved because the poor were responsible for their own immiseration.
So it was something of a breakthrough when the English sociologist Seebohm Rowntree made the distinction between primary and secondary poverty in a 1901 study entitled Poverty: A Study of Town Life. Primary Poverty affected those people who simply hadn't enough money to meet the basic necessities of life. Secondary Poverty was the condition of those who had enough money, but wasted it on "non-necessities". For Rowntree a non-necessity was meat if poor families could be taught to subsist on a vegetarian diet, but secondary poverty was really just a hangover from the Victorian Calvinist idea that people are poor because they blow their money on alcohol, gambling, and prostitutes.
But the very idea of Primary Poverty, that a huge number of people were poor because they were unemployed or paid too little for the work they could find was actually a Victorian ethos frame crasher, so to say. Of course Marxists on the continent were saying this for about a half century already, but Marxism never found a congenial home in the Anglo-American ethos dominated by the Calvinist Liberal moralistic frame.
The fact is that the difference between conservatives and progressives even today lies in that conservatives still work within that Victorian frame. They really believe that the poor are responsible for their own plight. That government handouts make them passive and dependent. They focus on the few who abuse government programs, the welfare queens, etc., and assume that they are the rule rather than the exception. And they would deny help to those who really need it if that's the only way to prevent the few undeserving from getting what they don't deserve.
Charles Blow did a piece in the NYT the other day about this zombie Victorian idea that poor people are passive and dependent:
We have gone from a war on poverty in this country to a war on the poor, in which poor people are routinely demonized and scapegoated and attacked, and conservatives have led the charge.
They paint the poor as takers, work averse, in need of motivation and incentive.
Well, that is simply not my experience with poverty. I have been poor, and both my parents worked. I grew up among poor people, and almost all of them worked. The problem wasn’t lack of effort, but low pay. Folks simply couldn’t make enough to shake the specter of need....
To buy into this destructive lie about the character of the poor means you’ve either had no experience being poor, or have no capacity to empathize with their plight.
Being poor is a job unto itself. The daily juggle of supplying the most basic needs — food, shelter, medicine — and the stress of knowing that you are always just one twist of fate away from calamity.
We moderns and late moderns live in a world where money means too much. It's bizarre that it has become a signifier of moral worth. Money is important--we all need enough of it that we shouldn't be in a continuous state of anxiety about it, but there are so many other better things to do than to manage it and worry about it.
That's the difference between those who celebrate free market capitalism and those who lean toward social democracy. The former thinks that the economic sphere in our lives is the most important, and that happiness and meaning in our lives depends on being effective economic players. It's for them as if economic activity is an end in itself, the way you prove your worth as a human being. And really, how bizarre is that? It's such an impoverished concept of what it means to be human. It takes an idea that has a little bit of truth in it and makes an idol of it.
People in the second group think that, yes, the economic sphere provides a foundation, but that it is not an end in itself. Each of us needs a stable economic foundation upon which to build a meaningful life, but that meaning is not built through economic activity, but in the sphere of culture--of friends, family, music and the arts, religious practice, learning, sports, hobbies, and other entertainments. That's where the meaning is. Happiness is not guaranteed for anyone, but the prospect of immiseration for anyone is never a worry. The focus for your moral responsibilty lies in whether you have made a life, not just in whether you have made a llving.
There is at its heart something deeply dehumanizing about the Liberal and Neoliberal ethos, and whatever might be said about socialism and its limitations, it has a human heart, at least until the technocrats get hold of it. That's the danger of socialism--not the moral hazards associated with redistribution, but its proclivity toward a toxic top-downism dominated by another kind of moralistic elite, the Jacobin who becomes a commissar.
No solution is ideal, but this is where the Rawls's veil of ignorance thought experiment is useful. If you were told before birth that you would be born black and poor, with average intelligence and talent, would you choose to be born in Cuba or in the U.S.?