Uprooting Social Inequality

In my experience, when discussing social inequality, one of the most difficult notions for people to grasp is the distinction between the material or “natural” diversity in which human labor powers necessarily appear — i.e. distributed across concrete individuals with needs and aptitudes that are always unique — and the hierarchical social forms, much more congealed and reinforced, that such natural diversity has acquired in known history.

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The idea that the division between leaders and followers, thinkers and doers, managers and rank-and-file workers, etc. — the largely rigid vertical division of labor on which layers and layers of social inequality (and, hence, capitalism, imperialism, etc.) are baked — can and should be dismantled seems impossible to even highly educated academics with the most progressive and even radical inclinations.

Such is the power of ideology, rooted in the social conditions in which we live and reproduce our lives. Inequality appears as natural as sunspots. That the inborn differences of skin color among human beings cannot be a valid excuse for the enslavement or even discrimination of Blacks by Whites is something that only the Economist, Fox News, and like outlets would be willing to dispute today. That the material division of the human race by their sexual, reproductive functions between males and females is no acceptable excuse in our times for the existence of gender exploitation or patriarchy seems sensible in principle (if not necessarily in practice) to most people other than religious fundamentalists. There are plenty of concrete referents around us belying the contrary view.

But the idea that the material differences among individuals in their cognitive powers, learning styles, etc. — differences that get brutally reinforced through conception, pre-natal conditions, early childhood, etc. — require that some human group (those deemed “smart” in accordance with some more or less contrived socially validated criteria) dominate socially the rest of us appears as “natural” and seemingly “inevitable” as the material differences themselves. Entertaining the notion that the global, radical dismantling of the conditions of social inequality that make this belief stick — and the dispelling of the belief itself — is not only conceivable, but absolutely indispensable for human survival in an ever shrinking planet is worse than naive, it is deemed utopian.

This is why I was so pleasantly surprised to find that one of the pioneering, most widely read works in the pop psychology and self-help literature, Wayne Dyer’s Your Erroneous Zones, contained this gem:

Aptitude is really a function of time, rather than an inborn quality. One support for this belief can be found in the grade norms for standardized achievement tests. These norms demonstrate that scores achieved by the top students at one grade level are achieved by the majority of students at a later grade level. Further studies show that although most students eventually reach mastery on each learning task, some students achieve mastery much sooner than do others.[*] Yet the label ‘deficient’ or even ‘retarded’ is often attached to those who move more slowly toward absolute mastery of a skill. Listen to John Carrol as he talks on this point in his article, ‘A Model for School Learning,’ which appeared in Teachers College Record:

‘Aptitude is the amount of time required by the learner to attain mastery of a learning task. Implicit in this formulation is the assumption that, given enough time, all students can conceivably attain mastery of a learning task.’

With enough time and effort you could, if you so chose, master almost any academic skill. [**]

Okay, Dyer felt he needed to qualify his assertion with the adverb “almost.” I am not sure that the “almost” is necessary, but let me not quibble with him now. Let us take what we are given. If “you” can, here and now, master “almost any academic skill” if “you” so choose, imagine what “you” (anybody, for that matter) could do in a society in which the most extreme and grotesque forms of social inequality (e.g. so called “extreme poverty”) were to be eradicated.

And also, let the record show that even the revered doyen of pro-market economics, the great Adam Smith believed that:

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were, perhaps, very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. [***]

If humans simply took genes (and nature overall) as an immutable given, then we would be no different from other animal species or even plants and trees. Yet, even sophisticated thinkers believe that inborn differences justify some hierarchies in our social life. I call it an ideology, not a fact.

[*] Benjamin S. Bloom, et. al. Handbook on Formative and Summative Evolution of Student Learning (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1971). [Cited by Dyer.]

[**] Wayne S. Dyer, Your Erroneous Zones (New York, Funk & Wagnalls, 1976)

[***] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 2.

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