Is social inequality inherent to human society?

In an exchange of comments Facebook the other day, somebody said:

“Capitalism doesn’t create inequality, if it did there wouldn’t be inequality existent in other economic systems which there most certainly is. Inequality is inherent to the human condition. We are not all equally capable or equally industrious so we will not enjoy equal results. There is no system that creates equality because equality doesn’t exist. It’s a fiction people choose to believe. Believe it if you will, but don’t tear down an economic system that provides you with the free time to indulge such fantasies. I’ll grant you that capitalism isn’t fair, but show me an economic model that produces more. I’ll take freedom over equality any day. Right now, we have neither.”

Hereafter I’m using the second person to address the commenter.

Your remarks reflect such a strong attachment to capitalist orthodoxies that it is unlikely I can say anything to convince you, and there are so many misconceptions and fallacies that it’s hard to know where to begin. But I should try to make a couple points just for the record.

The fact that “other economic systems” — i.e., other than capitalism — have resulted in social inequality (or were likewise based on it, as with slavery and feudalism) in no way proves that capitalism does not also produce inequality. More to the point, the data and the historical record are overwhelming. Few serious scholars, economists, etc. dispute that the global capitalist order has produced massive social inequality – even capitalists acknowledge this. The world’s most powerful, elite government officials, corporate executives and academics gather for their conference in Davos to wring their hands over the global social, economic and environmental crisis resulting from capitalism’s excesses. (And rightly so, because such a system not only morally reprehensible, but also unsustainable.). No, the great dispute is over the way forward.

Further, there really is no other economic system of consequence in the modern global economy, other than capitalism, hence nothing to compare except in historical terms. If you look at history, you can say slave-based and feudal societies were unequal, so that must be the human condition. But this too is fallacious; there is no basis in evolutionary biology, history, anthropology, or what have you, to conclude that capitalist, market-based forms of social organization are somehow genetically embedded in homo sapiens.

You seem to be confusing the Enlightenment-inspired ideal of equality, the notion of human and social rights, with the obvious fact of variation from one individual to another. Of course, some people excel more than others at sports, math, language, music — and some are just plain smarter than most of the rest of us. Some are “industrious,” some are boneheads and slackers. Is that any excuse for a system in which countless millions toil at slave wages while a handful of billionaires control the world’s resources?

Capitalism subordinates social need to private accumulation. Inequality is not just an unfortunate side effect; it’s an essential feature. Marx told you a long time ago that under capitalism, wealth tends to concentrate at the top at the expense of the many, and history has proven it. Yes, there have been booms, as in the post-Word War II period, when living standards in the U.S. rose generally —thanks to the fearless struggles of socialist-minded workers who achieved a few significant social reforms. The data is incontrovertible, however, that for the past three decades or so, wages have stagnated even while productivity has increased. Since the financial collapse 2008, of course, matters have gotten much worse for broad swaths of the population, while the tiny layer at the top enjoys a share of the national income not seen since the robber baron days.

These levels of inequality are wholly incompatible with democracy. You correctly state that right now we have neither freedom nor equality. But that is no mere coincidence. With these levels of inequality, social explosion is inevitable. The ruling class cannot permit freedom in the face of such instability; in order to maintain control, there has to be mass surveillance of the population (brought to you by the NSA), ruthless police violence, and an exaggerated threat of terrorism to incite fear.

You say don’t tear down an economic system that provides me with the free time to indulge my fantasies. The implication here is that if capitalism has been OK for me, and I enjoy a reasonable level of material comfort, then it’s fine, and for those innumerable millions all over the world living in misery, sorry but life is unfair. This view is self-centered and short-sighted. You probably would agree that we should deplore racism even if we are not a victim of it. This is ordinary moral decency. Why is social inequality any different? Because you start from the mistaken assumption that inequality is somehow an immutable characteristic of human social organization, a pessimistic and defeatist worldview with no objective, scientific basis.

The good news is that there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Of course, there are both selfish and altruistic tendencies in human behavior. The solution is to create social structures that make it difficult for the selfish and greedy impulses of a few to screw everyone else. The hope — and there is reason for hope — is that when material want is a thing of the past, the need for extreme greed will diminish and eventually fall away.

A few hundred years ago, slavery and genocide were far more common than they are today. Those who advocated for the abolition of the slave trade were derided as dreamers, or worse. Nowadays, world opinion is virtually unanimous that genocide and slavery are wrong. This is progress, and there are other examples. Human society has progressed from slavocracy to feudalism to bourgeois democracy and capitalism. Fortunately, there is no reason to believe that capitalism is the endpoint of human social evolution. Quite the opposite is true: capitalism gives every indication of coming apart at the seams. What will follow? That is the big question.

My view is that world socialist revolution is the only way forward. The resources of the planet must be brought under the democratic control of the working class — meaning the overwhelming majority of humankind — and utilized rationally to meet the needs of people and the environment, rather than pillaged for the benefit of a tiny minority at the top. If you think this is an unrealistic goal, consider the alternative.