As part of my autodidactically administered remedial course in political economy (my reading randomly in books I see mentioned elsewhere), I’ve been reading Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, which develops the ramifications of a fairly straightforward point: In order for large groups (that is a group in which it’s not immediately obvious how much any one member’s contribution adds to the group’s overall accomplishments) to be successful in pursuing their collective aims, individuals in the group must be compelled to work together for the common aim rather than follow what rationality tells them is their best interest (i.e., become a free rider). This requires organizational costs be met and discipline (the closed union shop, for example) be enforced.
In the midst of making a point about union membership, he cites a passage from Selig Perlman’s Theory of the Labor Movement that I found incredibly depressing:
The scarcity consciousness of the manual worker is the product of two main causes ... The typical manualist is aware of his lack of capacity for availing himself of economic opportunities and knows himself neither the born taker of risks nor the possessor of a sufficiently agile mind ever to feel at home in the midst of the uncertain game of competitive business. Added to this is the conviction that for him the world has been rendered one of scarcity by an institutional order of things, which purposely reserved the best opportunities for landlords, capitalists, and other privileged groups.
Though Perlman is criticized for preaching that workers should orient themselves toward business rather than class struggle (rejecting the idea that intellectuals could organize the working class from without to fulfill socialist aims—for Perlman, organic intellectuals were nascent capitalists, not Gramscian cultural critics), this description of how workers discourage themselves from entrepreneurship rings true, anticipating ideas Sennett and Cobb spell out in The Hidden Injuries of Class. The implication is that workers lack the social capital to lift themselves out of their class, that their inherited habitus includes what Perlman calls “job consciousness”—a deeply felt certainty that opportunities are limited. A truly egalitarian society would work to rectify this feeling via the educational system, but because American education is shot through with socialization processes, it tends to reinforce the sense of destiny one absorbs from the relative position of one’s parents.
The rich have no monopoly on opportunity—there are many rags-to-riches stories we feed ourselves—but growing income inequality seems predicated on the rich being in a position to act on their wider opportunities and make the most of them, and use the rewards to continually reshape the playing field to further favor them when they take risks. Any cursory look at successful capitalists reveals how often they fail and how many more chances they are afforded, mainly because they feel entitled to them and have the networks of supporters to drawn on to make them happen—to secure them credit, or what have you. George W. Bush is perhaps the epitome of this limitless ability to fail without feeling the consequences personally. But for most people, there is instead a crushing sense of limits that generally masquerades as “being realistic.” We accept what is on offer from the world, rather than trying to shape our own lives, because the instinct for making ideas operational—for not being content with the daydream—hasn’t been bred in. We tend to assume that penchant for daydreaming, for settling, for “being realistic” is a matter of personal character, but culturally we emphasize entertainment as precisely this kind of impotent escape. We prize convenience and reconfigure risk aversion as a kind of quiet nobility. We make the martyr complex a species of politeness we might pride ourselves on.
When American society addresses this confidence gap, it tends to promote more individualized attention as a solution (teaching self-esteem, of the joys of compliance as compensatory for the lack of meaningful work—“it’s nice to go home and veg out”) rather than address the institutional issues, the tendency for there to be exponentially increasing returns to wealth and an ever-increasing accumulation of social capital at the top of the income pyramid. Is it possible to redistribute opportunity without redistributing wealth, or pursuing a bolshevist program of simply replacing the powerful functionaries of one class with another? It seems that there would some benefit to teaching sociology rather than self-esteem. The lesson of self-esteem is often that you should take your own failures personally rather than see the other factors that contribute. This may sound a little too much like Lionel Hutz (“We’re going to put the system on trial!” “I don’t use the word hero very often, but you are the greatest hero in American history”) but it seems foolish to preach individual opportunity and ambition without also pointing out the factors that circumscribe it and considering what could be done to alleviate them.