It was twenty-seven degrees in Chapel Hill when I got up this morning at 4:30. After drinking some decaf, I put on my long johns, my thermal underwear, a turtleneck, two sweaters, sneakers and socks, a scarf, a hoodie, my reflector vest, and two pairs of woolen gloves and set out on my morning walk, looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters. Despite being quite protected from the chill, my thoughts were so disordered that I could not manage a sustained train of thought as I walked. Nearing the conclusion of the walk, I finally began to arrange my broodings into something resembling a coherent narrative, and I am going to try in this post to set them out. I hope you will be patient with my meanderings. These are difficult times.
There are two structures of domination and inequality in virtually all societies, the first social and the second economic, neither of which can be reduced to nor explained as a function of the other, although they everywhere and always interact in endlessly complex ways. The oldest and most pervasive structure of domination is male domination of women. This is often accompanied by racial and ethnic domination, as well of course as by xenophobic fear and loathing of the other, of foreigners, of immigrants, of those who pray or look or eat or walk or talk or even smell differently. The other structure of domination, the economic, takes many forms. In a capitalist economy it manifests itself as exploitation by those who own or control the means of production of the vastly larger segment of society that, owning nothing, must sell its labor for a wage. Neither of these structures, I say, is explainable merely as a subordinate form of the other, though many of the social theorists whose work I most respect have thought that it was.
The United States, like every other society, exhibits, and has always exhibited, both structures of domination and inequality, but chattel slavery and its sequals, which is the defining feature of American society, has given American society and politics a distinctive character. It is in this way that America truly is, as its apologists endlessly claim, exceptional.
The most striking changes in American society during my adult life have been two: First, a series of so-called liberation movements by those who have been socially dominated – The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib, Gay Liberation [latterly the LGBTTrans Movement], as well as the Latino/a Movement and the Native American Movement – and second, the progressive increase in the inequality in the distribution of wealth and income, an increase mirrored throughout the advanced capitalist world, as chronicled by Thomas Piketty.
I have on a number of occasions noted in my blog posts that the liberation movements seek the perfection of American capitalism, not its overthrow. That is to say, taken as a whole, they seek to eliminate the first structure of domination from American society while leaving the second structure intact and unaltered. The demand for full integration of African-Americans into American society, after all, is simply a demand, if I may put it in a sort of statistical shorthand, that the percentage of Black men and women going to college, serving in the military, holding positions of leadership in business and government and the academy become equal to the percentage for White men and women. “Equal pay for equal work,” the battle cry of the Women’s Movement, is, when one thinks about it, a demand that women be exploited at just the same rate as men, no more and no less. These movements are, let me emphasize, vitally important, and their successes have dramatically improved the lives of countless scores of millions of Americans. Their successes are still only partial, fragile, and – as we are about to see – perpetually under assault by those who would undo them. Let me speak personally: I will go to the barricades to defend my son’s right to marry whom he chooses.