For a number of years I have held that the world needs a new social contract. However, I had a hard time articulating the nature of that contract. I only knew that the current contract wasn’t working.
I read a short essay a couple of days ago by Umair Haque which held that we already have that contract; it’s just that America isn’t even aware of it, and the rest of the world hasn’t yet become aware of this historical lesson.
The manifestations of that contract are present throughout Europe and Canada, but not in the U.S.
After a long preamble in which the author denies being a political being he does admit to being keenly interested in economics, and the ways in which societies gain and distribute their wealth.
Although widely decried on social media as a socialist, Umair Haque admits to being a Social Democrat. The difference is important.
Under Social Democracy, according to Haque, necessities are provided by society at large to everyone; things like healthcare, shelter, food and education. Luxuries are provided by capitalism.
In the American system the model is inverted. Necessities are provided by capitalism and luxuries are provided through socialism, but it is a weird kind of socialism called crony capitalism. Luxuries like yachts and mansions are afforded by a sort of welfare-for-the-rich. This system cannot work for society at-large, because there is no incentive for capitalism to provide the basic needs for everyone. In fact, it is designed to do just the opposite. In the American model wealth is now, and has been, gained through exploitation; first slavery and then dispossession of Native Americans, then segregation and finally by capitalism run amok. The way to wealth is by taking things from others.
The way to know that his system doesn’t and can’t work is that it has done nothing for ordinary Americans. For the last half century wages have remained flat while the expenses of the basics continued to climb. Educational costs have more than doubled in that time. Life expectancy has not gone up at the rate of other societies. The various markers of a healthy economy and society show stagnation or recession in measurable indices.
Infant mortality, for example, is less than in the Central African Republic, but it is higher than in other Western nations. Defenders of the status quo will argue that it is the lack of compliance by low income individuals that causes those groups to have a high rate of infant mortality, but the real reason is rooted in lack of access to affordable prenatal care.
Haque portrays capitalism as the successor to slavery and segregation. It is not. Capitalism has existed for millennia. However, capitalism as it is practiced today where the poor lack any path to wealth, and where the wealthy enjoy a sort of socialism of wealth is the successor.
In addition to the points Haque made, it might be pointed out that the things we buy in America that are necessities (healthcare, food, housing) are largely produced here and are the least affordable. Some necessities like clothing are affordable only because they are produced through the exploitation of workers in poor countries. Also, some of the affordable things that are considered necessities, like smart phones, are actually luxuries affordable only because they are being produced by children working 16 hour days in China.
The same people who claim that blacks were happier when they were slaves argue that the Chinese children have a job that they wouldn’t have had before. It sounds wrong, but there is some truth to that claim. In a 2005 documentary that won numerous awards at the Sundance Film Festival, film maker, David Redman, interviewed teenage girls working at a factory that makes the plastic beads used at Mardi Gras. The girls are from the countryside, poor, their parents have nothing, and the girls are given a bed (that is shared by workers on other shifts)and food and about 2,000 yuan and hour. (In 2005 the exchange rate was 13,333 yuan to the U.S. dollar. Two thousand yuan would be less than 20 cents.) This amounts to about $1,000.00 per year. The girls work 16 hours a day, have Sunday off and have a 2 week vacation at New Year when they are allowed to go home to their families. Although they make a $1,000 a year, while the factory manager makes about $1.5 million a year, the family is glad to get the money. The girls have given up and education and any dreams for a career, even if fanciful, for their families.
Documentary on the manufacture of Mardi Gras beads in Fuchou Province, China.
The “inverse” social contract of America, in which exploitation of others theoretically provides for both the necessities and the luxuries of individuals, wealth has a sinister secondary effect. The system excuses past exploitation based on slavery and land theft and perpetuates hatred and bias against blacks and American Indians who were the subjects of previous institutionalized exploitation.
Accepting the notion that we – all of us – should share in order to ensure the necessities of the rest of us would imply that the groups who were previously exploited are our equals as human beings and unjustifiably wronged. Capitalism - as it is practiced in the U.S. - bolsters racism.