The Occupy movement has captured the imagination of millions of Americans. It has inspired solidarity, indifference, scorn, hope, frustration, optimism and skepticism. Only three months old, not a day goes by without some major news outlet providing an update on the movement spreading across the world. To judge the movement as successful or unsuccessful will take time, but surely we can declare it worthy of our attention.
My own interest has been drawn not so much to the movement itself, but to the discourse it has sparked. It seems to me that it offers an opportunity to revisit the way we usually discuss politics and economics. Ultimately, the movement is just as much a stress test of our ability to dialogue with one another as it challenges the status quo.
One especially recurrent theme in said discussions has surrounded the notion of inequality. How much inequality should we tolerate? Who’s responsible for it? How should we act to reduce it? Before offering my take, we must develop a firm understanding of what ‘inequality’ means.
Inequality is, at its core, the institutionalized privileging of some at the expense of others. Inequality implies that our political institutions, our legal provisions and our norms are systematically disadvantaging large groups of people.
Inequality is not the same as difference. In other words, difference and equality are not conflicting notions. In fact, only through equality is difference best protected. Equality does not imply equal outcomes, but it does necessitate equal treatment.
To use a courtroom analogy, in any fair legal system some individuals will win cases and some will lose cases. This is because some show up to court with a stronger case than others. What matters is that all are treated the same throughout the process. If A has a stronger case than B, we would expect A to have a higher probability of winning than B. That’s not inequality — that’s difference. But if the situation is reversed and A is still more likely to win than B, something is amiss. That’s not difference — that’s inequality.
In other words, I liken difference to diversity and inequality to discrimination. And it’s only by analyzing the process through which difference arises or by witnessing suspicious levels of difference that we can distinguish between the two notions.
To return to Occupy, it strikes me that no matter whether you’re a supporter, an opponent or indifferent with respect to the movement, it’s important not to conflate difference with inequality when contributing to the conversation. It would be unreasonable for anyone to suggest that the current social order needs restructuring simply because it allows for different outcomes. But it would be equally unreasonable for somebody to be satisfied with the status quo if difference is artificially created and reproduced through institutionalized inequality.
My own impression is that the current socioeconomic situation in the United States is not simply a manifestation of difference, but also the product of inequality. The New York Times has reported that the 400 wealthiest individuals in this country have a greater combined net worth than 150 million Americans. Unless every single one of those individuals possessed a level of charisma, of intellectual acumen and a moral and social constitution exponentially superior to every single one of those 150 million individuals, what we have is chilling evidence that an intolerable level of institutionalized inequality has spread throughout our country.
To acknowledge this isn’t to suggest that none of those individuals merit being or becoming very rich. It doesn’t mean that success, honestly achieved, should be curtailed. It doesn’t imply erasing difference. Rather, it necessitates working to eliminate the presence of artificial difference. Most of all, it requires admitting that a small number of individuals are disproportionately benefitting from a social order where increasingly it isn’t ability, drive or vision that endows you with a better shot at success — it’s the unchecked vicissitudes of power.