- To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace. (Also stated as: “Riches and honors acquired by unrighteousness, are to me as a floating cloud.”) [Confucius, The Analects, Section 2, Part 7.]
- I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence. [Eugene V. Debs, September 18, 1918.]
- A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. … A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just. [Martin Luther King, Jr., public address.]
Equal opportunity is a legal concept, which has referred to equal access unimpeded by race, ethnicity, religion or any other basis of discrimination except merit. To date, it has not meant true equal opportunity, which would imply an equality of means.
For most of the world’s people and for many in the United States, equal opportunity is a cruel joke. No one who grows up in a violent neighborhood and receives a substandard education truly has equal opportunity. Still, eliminating the traditional fault lines of discrimination is an important first step.
A promise of equal opportunity is meaningless without the means, economically and otherwise, to be on a truly equal footing. A child brought up in poverty and exposed to an inferior education does not have the same opportunity as a child of wealth who is handed the opportunity at a first-rate education. The mere fact that some disadvantaged people will pull themselves up by their bootstraps does not excuse excessive inequality in a system dedicated to equal opportunity for all. Opportunity in fact refers to an economic ideal in which every child has an equal opportunity to attain any degree or position based solely merit and not on advantages of birth or other circumstance.
Technical and Analytical Readings
Works on egalitarianism:
- Nils Holtug and Kaspar Lippert-Rasmussen, eds., Egalitarianism: New Essays on the Nature and Value of Equality (Oxford University Press, 2007).
- Anthony Giddens and Patrick Diamond, eds., The New Egalitarianism (Polity, 2005).
- John E. Roemer, Equality of Opportunity (Harvard University Press, 1998).
- Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (W.W. Norton & Company, 2012): arguing that trends toward greater economic inequality in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century are products of a corrupted political system and are unsustainable
- Timothy Noah, The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (Bloomsbury Press, 2012): “as fair and comprehensive a summary as we are likely to get of what economists have learned about our growing inequality.”
- Astra Taylor, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (Metropolitan Books, 2014): “The pre-Internet cultural industry, populated mainly by exploitative conglomerates, was far from perfect, but at least the ancien régime felt some need to cultivate cultural institutions, and to pay for talent at all levels. Along came the web, which swept away hierarchies — as well as paychecks, leaving behind creators of all kinds only the chance to be fleetingly ‘Internet famous.’”
- Joseph E. Stiglitz, People, Power, and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019): “He argues that the American system of capitalism has fallen down and needs government help to get back up again.”
- Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Belknap Press/Harvard University, 2020): “Piketty . . . sees inequality as a social phenomenon, driven by human institutions. Institutional change, in turn, reflects the ideology that dominates society . . .”
On education and equal opportunity:
- Robert Pondiscio, How The Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice (Avery, 2019): “Some charter school critics dub this argument ‘the lifeboat theory of education reform,’ in that the majority of children are left to sink on the big ship. With this morally disturbing conclusion to his unsparingly honest book, Pondiscio implicates all of us in the unforgivable neglect of children and education in our poorest communities.”
- Paul Tough, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019): “The life I live now is not the life I was born to. I was propelled up to it, and the motor that powered my ascent was a university education. This is our ideal of higher education: as an engine of opportunity.”
- Daniel Markovitz, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foudational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles and Middle Class, and Devours the Elite (Penguin Press, 2019): “. . . far from solving economic inequality, higher education is one of the central forces driving our yawning class divide. In this ambitious and disturbing survey of the American upper class, he tells us that our elite universities’ sifting and sorting of human beings has helped to herd Americans into a system of rank and status and — yes — caste that is now so clearly passed from parent to child . . .”
Critiques of capitalism:
- Eric J. Weiner, The Shadow Market: How a Group of Wealthy Nations and Powerful Investors Secretly Dominate the World (Scribner, 2010).
- Ralph Nader, "Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!" (Seven Stories Press, 2009).
- Eric Gable, Anthropology and Egalitarianism: Ethnographic Encounters from Monticello to Guinea-Bassau (Indiana University Press, 2010).
- Jean-Pierre Gross, Fair Shares for All: Jacobin Egalitarianism in Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1997).
- Henry Phelps Brown, Egalitarianism and the Generation of Inequality (Oxford University Press, 1988).
- Andrew Shankman, Crucible of American Democracy: The Struggle to Fuse Egalitarianism & Capitalism in Jeffersonian Pennsylvania (University Press of Kansas, 2004).
- Louise Marlow, Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2002).
- Stephen Strehle, The Egalitarian Spirit of Christianity: The Sacred Roots of American and British Government (Transaction Publishers, 2008).
- Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era (Harper/Collins Publishers, 2017). “ . . . Taylor recounts the rise of African-Americans during the time of Reconstruction and their fall during the subsequent decades, when legislation was advanced in order to again segregate, impoverish and humiliate a population that many whites believed had gained too much.”
- Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (Knopf, 2018): an expose on how some people promote the congealment of wealth and power under the guise of change.
- Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai University (Random House, 2012): “ . . . the spectacle of Mumbai’s ‘profound and juxtaposed inequality’ provoked a line of questioning: ‘What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? . . . Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?’ Her eye is as shrewdly trained on the essential facts of politics and commerce as on the intimate, the familial and, indeed, the monstrously absurd: the college-going girl who struggles to figure out ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ while her closest friend, about to be forced into an arranged marriage, consumes rat poison, and dies (though not before the doctors attending her extort 5,000 rupees, or $100, from her parents).”
- Tim Wu, The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age (Columbia Global Reports, 2018): “‘Extreme economic concentration yields gross inequality and material suffering, feeding an appetite for nationalistic and extremist leadership,’ he writes, by way of introduction and warning. ‘The road to fascism and dictatorship is paved with failures of economic policy to serve the needs of the general public.’”
- Amy Klobuchar, Antitrust: Taking On Monopoly Power from the Gilded Age to the Digital Age (Knopf, 2021): “Over the last decade, the handful of technology companies that have grown to a gargantuan size have fueled concerns among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle over the power wielded by these behemoths.”
- Joanne Lipman, That’s What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together (William Morrow/HarperCollins Publishers, 2018): “ . . . when Lipman quizzed male executives on what it was about working with women that flummoxed them most, the resounding consensus was a crying woman. When women cry, a man’s testosterone drops, which makes him depressed. If he only knew that women typically don’t cry at work because they’re sad. According to the research Lipman cites, women cry in the office because they’re angry.”
- Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Sisters and Rebels: A Struggle for the Soul of America (W.W. Norton & Company, 2019): “The Lumpkins also challenged the South’s plantation and emerging industrial class by championing workers and left-wing agitators.”
- Nicholas D. Krystof and Cheryl WuDunn, Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope (Knopf, 2020): “. . . a litany of individual stories from across the country that cut across race, ethnicity and geography but share a theme of economic misfortune in a nation plenty rich enough to help if it cared to.”
- Michael Lind, The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite (Portfolio/Penguin, 2020): “American democracy worked in a certain way in the three decades after World War II, it stopped working that way, and oligarchy ensued.”
- Conor Dougherty, Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America (Penguin Press, 2020): “It’s hard to overstate how dire California’s housing crisis is. To combat it, policymakers must consider a complicated intersection of issues, including the displacement of vulnerable populations, maintaining the character of neighborhoods, the environment, affordability. But there’s only one answer: more housing.”
- Lauren Sandler, This Is All I Got: A New Mother’s Search for Home (Random House, 2020): a young woman’s struggle to obtain housing
- Augustine Sedgewick, Coffeeland: One Man’s Dark Empire and the Making of Our Favorite Drug (Penguin Press, 2020): “How Coffee Ruined a Country”
- Chris Hamby, Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia (Little Brown & Co., 2020): “. . . we meet miners who have been fighting their employers 20 years or longer for (disability) payments. They argue their cases before administrative law judges, or are represented by low-budget attorneys who are overmatched in endless legal sparring with coal companies and their powerful lawyers. And yet, their Appalachian fortitude is such that they keep up the fight, even as death approaches.”
- Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Income Inequality (Liveright, 2020): “How has the Republican Party persuaded so many working-class voters to support a plutocratic agenda that they often don’t especially like, and that often undermines their own livelihoods?”
- Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World Slaves Made (Random House, 1974): rooted in Marxist ideology, this classic book presents slaves not merely as chattel but as people with ideas, a culture, and strategies of resistance.
- Harold Hunter and Norton Garfinkle, A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity (Basic Books, 2015): “ . . . Holzer and Garfinkle have written a stimulating book. They describe convincingly Lincoln’s core conviction that government must foster equal opportunity in order to build and sustain a strong middle class.”
- Katherine Belton, Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020): “Documents the Ruthless and Relentless Reach of Kremlin Corruption”.
- Adam Harris, The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges Have Always Been Unequal – and How to Set Them Right (Ecco, 2021): “Black Colleges, From the Start, Were Given Less and Expected to Do More”.
- Thomas Piketty, Time for Socialism: Dispatches from a World on Fire, 2016-2021 (Yale University Press, 2021): “After his deep exploration of intensifying inequality, Piketty has concluded that the redistributive policies of welfare capitalism — mildly progressive taxes and social benefits — are inadequate.”
- Corban Addison, Wastelands: A True Story of Farm Country on Trial (Knopf, 2022): “The places where hogs are now raised are ‘farms’ in name only. They’re essentially livestock factories, dedicated to uniformity and efficiency, that house thousands of hogs crammed together in windowless sheds. And like other factories, they produce a good deal of waste — in this case, about a gallon and a half of urine and excrement per hog every day. All of that waste has to go somewhere. And where it winds up has proved remarkably destructive to America’s rural landscape and the people who live in it.”
- Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America (Crown Publishing, 2023), “examines the persistence of want in the wealthy United States, finding that keeping some citizens poor serves the interests of many.”
Clarence Darrow defended “Communists, anarchists, mobsters, politicians and homicidal socialites.”
- Andrew E. Kersten, Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast (Hill & Wang, 2011).
- John A. Farrell, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (Doubleday, 2011).
On excessive concentrations of wealth and power:
- Christopher Leonard, Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America (Simon & Schuster, 2019): “. . . Leonard does not judge the Kochs; he explains them — their operations and acquisitions, successes and failures, trading strategies, business philosophies and family feuds.”
- Brad Stone, Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire (Simon & Schuster, 2021): “Amazon in the 2010s was an intensely personal venture, run by one of the wealthiest men in the world according to his own desires and reflecting his own personality.”
- Alec MacGillis, Fulfullment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America (Farrar, Starus & Giroux, 2021): “Through interviews, careful investigative reporting and vignettes from across the country, MacGillis deftly unravels the strong grip Amazon has on the United States, from the ground level — in the inhumane working conditions of the warehouse, in rural towns upended by deindustrialization and subject to the glint of Amazon’s economic promise — to the gilded halls of Washington, D.C., where Amazon’s lobbyists flock.”
- James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams, Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy (Penguin Press, 2023), “is a chronicle of corporate greed, manipulation, misogyny and sexual impropriety on a spectacular scale.”
Histories of exploitation:
- Saket Soni, The Great Escape: A History of Forced Labor and Immigrant Dreams in America (Algonquin Books, 2023), “recounts the ordeal faced by hundreds of Indian workers who were lured to this country on false promises of green cards and sorely mistreated.”
On shared wealth and prosperity, and distributive justice:
- Michael Tomasky, The Middle Out: The Rise of Progressive Economics and a Return to Shared Prosperity (Doubleday, 2022): “. . . Michael Tomasky contends that Joe Biden is following a smart path in a time of growing inequality and financial distress.”
Documentary and Educational Films
- The Machinists, about the exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh
- Far from the Trees, about poverty in Franco’s Spain
- Garapa, about people struggling to avoid starvation in Brazil
- Men of Burden: Pedaling Towards a Horizon: about the economic plight of men who “drove” rickshaws in India
- The People of the Kattawapiskak River, about poverty in a Cree community in northern Ontario, Canada
- The Price of Sugar, on the exploitation of sugar cane harvesters
- The One Percent, on wealth inequality in the United States
Economic inequality in art:
- James Ensor, Banquet of the Starved
- Diego Rivera, The Land’s Bounty Rightfully Possessed (1926)
- Kazimir Malevich, Peasant Woman with Buckets and a Child (1912)
- Honore Daumier, A Wagon of the Third Class (c. 1862)
- Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple (c. 1626)
- El Greco, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (1570)
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Fred Hersch is a great jazz artist and a genuinely nice man. I always enjoy speaking with him for a few moments when I attend one of his gigs. His music and his character give the impression that with Fred, everyone has a chance. You can hear this in his trio's performances.
- “Floating” album
- “Red Square Blue: Jazz Impressions of Russian Composers” album
- “Live in Europe” album (2018)
- “Da Vinci” album, with Nico Gori (2012)
- “Fred Hersch & Friends” album
- “Songs We Know” album, with Bill Frisell
- “Begin Again” album
- “@ the Village Vanguard” album (1997)
- “Dancing in the Dark” album
- “Free Flying” album, with Julian Lage
- “Live at Jazz Standard” album
- “Leaves of Grass” album
- “Sunday Night at the Vanguard” album
- “Whirl” album
- Jazz Improvisation: Art of the Ballad
- Piano concert with Peter Martin
- Live at the Iowa City Jazz Festival (2013)
- Live at the Funchal Jazz Festival (Portugal) in July 2016
- “My Coma Dreams”, with Herschel Garfein
- Fred on piano with the Art Farmer Quartet, 1980
Music about economic exploitation:
- Silvestre Revueltas, Redes: music, the film and commentary
- Anthony Joseph, “The Rich are Only Defeated When Running for Their Lives” (2021)
Albums, from the dark side:
- Shovel Dance Collective, “The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore” (2022) (59’) explores “the undead evils of colonialism, exploitation, slavery and capitalism . . .” “There is not so much as an acoustic guitar in the credits of The Water Is the Shovel of the Shore, which instead favors instruments that conjure a deeper and stranger antiquity: hammered dulcimer, bowed cittern, mountain banjo, pump organ.” This “bold new album explor(es) the extremes of humanity’s relationship with water, and why progression and tradition need not be opposites”.
After Fantine lost her job in Valjean’s factory (Les Misérables), effectively she had little chance to survive. In this tragic story, Hugo was pointing out how the niceties of equality under the law are not sufficient to afford real opportunity in an economically unjust social and political environment.
Fantine tried to obtain a situation as a servant in the neighborhood; she went from house to house. No one would have her. She could not leave town. The second-hand dealer, to whom she was in debt for her furniture--and what furniture!--said to her, "If you leave, I will have you arrested as a thief." The householder, whom she owed for her rent, said to her, "You are young and pretty; you can pay." She divided the fifty francs between the landlord and the furniture-dealer, returned to the latter three-quarters of his goods, kept only necessaries, and found herself without work, without a trade, with nothing but her bed, and still about fifty francs in debt. She began to make coarse shirts for soldiers of the garrison, and earned twelve sous a day. Her daughter cost her ten. It was at this point that she began to pay the Thénardiers irregularly. However, the old woman who lighted her candle for her when she returned at night, taught her the art of living in misery. Back of living on little, there is the living on nothing. These are the two chambers; the first is dark, the second is black. Fantine learned how to live without fire entirely in the winter; how to give up a bird which eats a half a farthing's worth of millet every two days; how to make a coverlet of one's petticoat, and a petticoat of one's coverlet; how to save one's candle, by taking one's meals by the light of the opposite window. No one knows all that certain feeble creatures, who have grown old in privation and honesty, can get out of a sou. It ends by being a talent. Fantine acquired this sublime talent, and regained a little courage. At this epoch she said to a neighbor, "Bah! I say to myself, by only sleeping five hours, and working all the rest of the time at my sewing, I shall always manage to nearly earn my bread. And, then, when one is sad, one eats less. Well, sufferings, uneasiness, a little bread on one hand, trouble on the other,--all this will support me." It would have been a great happiness to have her little girl with her in this distress. She thought of having her come. But what then! Make her share her own destitution! And then, she was in debt to the Thénardiers! How could she pay them? And the journey! How pay for that? [Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862), Volume I – Fantine; Book Fifth – The Descent Begins, Chapter IX, Madame Victurnien’s Success.]
- E. M. Forster, Howard’s End (1910).
- David Foster Wallace, The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel (Little, Brown & Company, 2011): on “the lot of the poor.”
- Chika Unigwe, On Black Sisters Street (Random House, 2011), probing the “underbelly of our globalized new world economy.”
- Carolyn Chute, The Recipe for Revolution: A Novel (Grove Press, 2020): “. . . the poor are masked, she seems to be saying. They are hidden by stale language, misleading histories, willful blindness. And Carolyn Chute’s epic project is to make all of us, finally, see.”
- Nicholas Mathieu, And Their Children After Them: A Novel (Other Press, 2020), about the effects of de-industrialization.
- Imbolo Mbue, How Beautiful We Were: A Novel (Random House, 2021), about a fictional African village with a high mortality because of an oil company’s pollution.
- Jojo Moyes, Someone Else’s Shoes: A Novel (Pamela Dorman Books, 2023): “The rightful owner of the bag is Nisha Cantor, a wealthy, pampered second wife who is now saddled with a pair of 'very tired, ugly, block-heeled' pumps. . . Unable to collect her finery or her passport, Nisha now needs cash, pronto, so Moyes sets her up with a job as hotel maid.”
Fictional narratives about economic justice for workers:
- Sanora Babb, Whose Names are Unknown: A Novel (1939), about “High Plains farmers who fled drought and dust storms during the Great Depression”.
- Jack Conroy, The Disinherited: A Novel of the 1930s (Bentley Publishers, 1979), on “the world of the working stiff”.
- Jack Conroy, A World to Win (Covici Friede, 1935), a novel that “bears the marks of the labor struggles and union strikes (Conroy) witnessed in the early 1930s”.
- Michael Gold, Jews Without Money: A Novel (1930), about Jews struggling in poverty in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
- Agnes Smedley, Daughter of Earth: A Novel (1929), about growing up in Midwestern and Western mining towns in the United States.
- Chika Unigwe, On Black Sisters Street: A Novel (Random House, 2011), by “an Afro-Belgian writer who probes with passion, grace and comic verve the underbelly of our globalized new world economy.”
Novels and stories on economic inequality, generally:
- Te-Ping Chen, Land of Big Numbers: Stories (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021): “Chen excels at gritty realism, vividly portraying the widening gap between China’s haves and have-nots.”
- Fernanda Melchor, Paradais: A Novel (New Directions, 2022): “. . . the stroke of genius here is cleaving one monster into two. In many ways, Franco is set up in binary opposition to Polo: white, blond, obese, rich, the inheritor of generations of excess, entitlement, gluttony. Neither is capable of such horrendous violence without the other — a kind of parasitic mutualism.”
- Adam White, The Midcoast: A Novel (Hogarth, 2022): “. . . the underlying story (is) of the place itself, of the kinds of people and attitudes midcoastal Maine produces, of its jarring juxtapositions of poverty and wealth.”
Film and Stage
- Howard’s End: a portrait of class differences in Victorian England
- La Cérémonie, a “witty and observant social commentary about the eternal confrontation between the rich and the poor”
- Le Crime de Monsieur Lange(The Crime of Monsieur Lange): this pre-French-resistance film makes a case that violent resistance against exploitation is honorable
- Cavalcade, adapted from Noël Coward’s play, about the upper class and their servants. The series Upstairs Downstairs explores the same theme.
- Metropolis: a classic silent film about economic stratification in an imagined futuristic industrial age. That Fritz Lang did not foresee the post-industrial economy detracts little from the salience of his warning.
- The Full Monty, about earning a living
- Norma Rae, about economic oppression in a company town, the title character is a labor organizer with an unbreakable will.
- The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, about three peasant families in early twentieth-century Italy
- Vivre sa vie(My Life To Live): a series of vignettes about a woman who turns to prostitution to support herself
- Take Out: an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman in New York City struggles heroically to support his family and pay off a debt
- Redes, a 1935 film about the Mexican Revolution, and its roots in economic exploitation of workers
When the trumpet sounded
everything was prepared on earth,
and Jehovah gave the world
to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
Ford Motors, and other corporations.
The United Fruit Company
reserved for itself the most juicy
piece, the central coast of my world,
the delicate waist of America.
It rebaptized these countries
and over the sleeping dead,
over the unquiet heroes
who won greatness,
liberty, and banners,
it established an opera buffa:
it abolished free will,
gave out imperial crowns, encouraged envy, attracted
the dictatorship of flies:
Trujillo flies, Tachos flies
Carias flies, Martinez flies,
Ubico flies, flies sticky with
submissive blood and marmalade,
drunken flies that buzz over
the tombs of the people,
circus flies, wise flies
expert at tyranny.
With the bloodthirsty flies
came the Fruit Company,
amassed coffee and fruit
in ships which put to sea like
overloaded trays with the treasures
from our sunken lands.
Meanwhile the Indians fall
into the sugared depths of the
harbors and are buried in the
a corpse rolls, a thing without
name, a discarded number,
a bunch of rotten fruit
thrown on the garbage heap.
[Pablo Neruda, “The United Fruit Co.”]
- Lonnie Hicks, “Work Place, Equality and Freedom”