Monthly Archives: August 2013

History of Inequality As Viewed By Rousseau and Marx

Inequality is a negative force acting to oppress mankind.  Although Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx lived in very different times and used different models of thinking to look at their societies they both identified inequality as a major cause of social injustice.  Rousseau lived in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution and examined the issue using philosophical reasoning while Marx addressed the problem as the Industrial Revolution was reaching maturity and approached it from the view of an economic historian.

Rousseau looked back on a feudal and monarchical history and conceived of political inequalities that depended on the common consent of mankind.  These inequalities included wealth, honor, and power over others.  Once mankind had created societies, people became aware of status and compared themselves to others and began to care about what other people thought of them.  This self imposed vanity created a contradiction for most people; the desire for things they did not need in order to satisfy this sense of vanity.  Preoccupation with the drive to possess status disguised the oppression of the people and kept them from realizing that they were not free or natural.  In order to gain more status in wealth, possessions, politics, or society they became separated from the natural state of man.  Rousseau reached the conclusion that the arts and sciences created luxuries that soon became needs, “Everyone begins to survey the rest, and wishes to be surveyed himself; and public esteem acquires a value” (1).

People with property need a way to protect it, so “the rich man, thus pressed by necessity, at last conceived the deepest project that ever entered the human mind: this was to employ in his favour the very forces that attacked him, to make allies of his enemies, to inspire them with other maxims, and make them adopt other institutions as favourable to his pretensions, as the law of nature was unfavourable to them.”  Those with only the wealth they could obtain through their own labor needed protection too.  Those with power and property then convinced the people to make laws that “fixed forever the laws of property and inequality” (1).

Marx was looking back at an age that had seen the expansion of low tech, low wage factory labor.  The feudal systems had been replaced by industrialization.  The commoditization of labor allowed the owners of capital to treat the people as mere tools of production.  The people worked the factories while the owners of the property retained the products of their labor in exchange for subsistence wages and security.  As the modes of production improved, the total output of commodities increased while the workers’ value was continuously reset.  This created a society that now consisted of two classes; the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.  This conflict “…left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous cash payment” (2).  Marx predicted that this conflict would inevitably lead to a social revolution; a revolution of the workers against the owners of the means of production.  “In place of the old bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”(2)  Marx thought that in this way all class distinctions would be eliminated.

While both men found inequality as one of the main sources of the social problems of their times, it is not surprising that they viewed the causes of its development very differently.  One hundred fifty years have passed since Marx’s writings and two hundred and fifty since Rousseau’s and society still has not solved the problem of inequality.  The revolutions that Marx predicted have come and gone in many times and places but always against the ruling parties.  The results are always the same.  Those with wealth and power control the ruling parties and in this way continue to accumulate more wealth while the working people work for subsistence wages and have few freedoms and little power to change the systems that hold them down.  If the workers of the world can wake up and recognize who their real masters are and unite against them maybe we can all work towards a better society.

  1. Jean-Jacque Rousseau – A Discourse Upon the Origin and the Foundation of the Inequality of Mankind
  2. Karl Marx – The Communist Manifesto

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We Have The Power

“Over billions of years, on a unique sphere, chance has painted a thin covering of life – complex, improbable, wonderful and fragile.  Suddenly we humans (a recently arrived species no longer subject to the checks and balances inherent in nature), have grown in population, technology, and intelligence to a position of terrible power: we now wield the paintbrush.” ~ Paul MacCready

10,000 years ago human population plus livestock and pets was approximately 0.1% of vertebrate biomass.  Today it is 98%.

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Kant, Rousseau, Marx, and Me

Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] “Have courage to use your own understanding! – that is the motto of enlightenment. ” ~ Jean Jacques Rousseau

“Enlightenment is the project to make the world more of a home for human beings” is how Immanuel Kant described enlightenment.  He also proposed the argument; “If it is now asked whether we at present live in an enlightened age, the answer is: No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment.”  Using Kant’s definition, I intend to demonstrate that his argument is as valid today as it was in 1784.

Kant and Rousseau perceived struggles between the classes at the onset of the enlightenment period that Marx analyzed a hundred years later.  According to Marx ‘The history of hitherto societies is the history of class struggles’.  The struggle of the aristocracy to maintain their power, the rich to keep the wealth, and the people’s struggle for freedom and equality against tyranny is creating more divisiveness today than the world has ever known.  Kant defined Enlightenment as the “ability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.”  Kant goes on to say that laziness and cowardice are the reasons most people don’t attempt to educate themselves. They even become comfortable and apathetic in their ignorance.  They prefer to believe the dogma of others and remain undisturbed in their day to day existence.

Rousseau said “The first man, who, after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”  But he also goes on to say that as people of prestige and power become enlightened they may decline to release their hold on the “great unthinking mass”.  And as the many “incapable of enlightenment” already accept the “guardians” and their dogma as authority, there is incentive for those in power to impede the progress of enlightenment.

Freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas is all that is required for this enlightenment according to Kant.  Once the people accepted the myth of private property and were convinced that it important to protect the rights of the people that have property to keep it, equality ceased to exist.  As people came to own more things they became attached to these things, surrendering themselves into a state of bondage to their property.  But this property that no longer makes them happy would be very painful to lose, so it must have protection.  The rich used their wealth to convince the people that the moral thing to do was to demand freedom to own property.  Governments were empowered by the people to protect these property rights even though the people themselves had very little property.  Those with larger portions of property used prejudice, promises of wealth, divisiveness, religion, fear, and patriotism to convince the “parcel of rustics” to insist their governments protect and perpetuate the myth of private property; “…and for the benefit of a few ambitious individuals subjected the rest of mankind to perpetual labour, servitude, and misery”.

Marx observed that for the population that demanded property rights ninety per cent had very little property.  It was in the hands of the rich, the very people who control them with that wealth.  This wealth took the form of capital and was accumulated through the exploitation of natural resources and wage labor.  Wage labor represents a small portion of the total wealth and the capitalists have control of who gets how much.  This system is then made legitimate by the government the people had been told they wanted and needed.  Marx said “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

The common thread is apparent.  Marx’s ‘bourgeoisie’ use their wealth to influence the media and politicians and thus control Kant’s ‘great unthinking mass’ to convince Rousseau’s ‘people simple enough to believe’ to elect representatives and pass laws that are not in the best interests of the people.  While we do live in a time of many wonders, we do not live in an enlightened age and we certainly are not creating a ‘project to make the world more of a home for human beings.

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