Like “neoliberalism,” former Harper’s Magazine columnist Thomas Frank writes at Salon, the tone of the term “inequality” is “needlessly clinical, giving the whole debate a technical and bloodless air.”
Still, to read around on the subject is to get the feeling that certain liberals like it that way. “Needlessly clinical” is exactly their style. The subject, for them, must be positively cloaked in wonkery. They don’t talk much about “class,” like some troublemaker from the ’30s; they talk about “inequality,” which is a delicate and intricate signifier. Oh, it is extremely complex. It requires so many charts.
… [But] “Inequality” is not some minor technical glitch for the experts to solve; this is the Big One. This is the very substance of American populism; this is what has brought together movements of average people throughout our history. Offering instruction on the subject in a classroom at Berkeley may be enlightening for the kids in attendance but it is fundamentally the wrong way to take on the problem, almost as misguided as it would be if we turned the matter over to the 1 percent themselves and got a bunch of billionaires together at Davos to offer pointers on how to stop them from beating us over and over again in the game of life. (Oops — that actually happened.)
“Inequality” is the most basic issue of them all, the very reason for liberalism’s existence. It is about who we are and how we live. Virtually every other liberal cause pales by comparison. This is the World War II of political subjects, and if we are going to win it must be a people’s war, not a Combat of the Thirty between the plumèd knights of the Beltway. We owe the economists thanks for making the situation plain, but now matters must of necessity pass into other hands. If the destruction of the middle class is ever to be addressed and solved, the impetus must come from below, not from above. This is a job we have to do ourselves.