Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Origins of Inequality?: Chelcicky, Private Property, and the Price of Civilization

Leithart put up a piece recently looking at the origins of inequality: here

To summarize: he analyzes Walter Scheidel's work, which finds that private property and transmissability of property (i.e. being able to pass it down generationally) are what solidify inequities. This is true among farming and herding people, but also true among hunting people, like the Comanche, who measured their wealth in terms of horses and horse-based amenities (i.e. slaves to groom the horses). Political structures and hierarchies thus develop to preserve the balance of power and enact organized violence on behalf of the group.
The baffling thing is that Leithart concludes with this: 
Rousseau was right to this extent: Civilization produces inequality. If this is right, the question for egalitarians is: What price are you willing to pay for equality? Give up property ownership and the capacity to pass on an inheritance? Give up advanced civilization itself? By examining the dynamics that produce inequality, Scheidel's book highlights the stakes of our contemporary debate.
First of all, I'm not sure how Leithart connects civilization to private property. He seems to sneak in a premise. In fact, Schneidel says that technological and economic developments (e.g. farming or herding) do not create the inequalities. Unless there is a passage which he is not quoting, the only obvious choice for "advanced civilization" is the increasingly more sophisticated political orders that emerge. These are the political forces that function, at their most basic, as mafiosi.

But more importantly, he seems kind of glib about the state of inequity. It's easy to take this posture when one is a well-adjusted member of the haves. He also doesn't seem to notice that promoting a modern state of inequity goes hand in hand with his arch enemy of mind-less consumerist capitalism. Why do people not just take to the streets and riot? Why was Marx wrong about the critical mass of Capitalism? Because fantasies like the American Dream offer a steam-valve. Because in a society of increasing inequity, the idea that we might one day be one of the elite, if we work hard enough, if we're on our grind every day, if we can make a couple of reforms to the system, then all will be well.

Of course, there were plenty of non-capitalistic societies that had social inequity, but none have been so ordered and well-oiled as our present order. It's not that it's not violent (it is) but in a way, the nascent market-state has monopolized violence through militarized police-forces, the inbred global mix of corporate-state intelligence, and increasing contract mercenaries.

In this, I think of Chelcicky, who was not surprised that such orders would exist in Satan's rule, but was horrified that Christians would build this order for themselves. The dreams of "civilization" come at the cost of an ocean of pleb blood, and it is sick to merely clink our glasses at such accomplishments. Perhaps even worst is to build monuments, a like demonstration to the Pharisees' ancestors who built the graves of the prophets. It's sappy-eyed, saccharine, celebration, an attempt to absolve a sense of guilt and leave the past in the past.

For the empire-builders, the reality of Apostolic life, sharing property and rejecting the lure of Mammon, can only be a one-off affair. God forbid such a life could ever be normative! Chelcicky saw that private property was, in a sense, a craving of the flesh. It is one thing to use and appropriate the things of the Earth for survival, but the power of the flesh is when these things take on a totalized sense. Earth becomes closed off from Heaven. Thus we crave immortality through the preservation of our house and our children. Instead, like blessed king David, we ought to rather forego a full belly and many children for the promise of "awaking in Your Likeness" (Ps. 17).

Leithart shows, inadvertently I'm sure, the cravings of the flesh that are, and will always be, a danger and a snare to following Christ.

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