Successes and Failures of Democratic Systems in Combatting Social and Cultural Exclusion
Douglas V. Porpora
In a 2013 article on world millennial goal performance, The Economist magazine illustrates what Professor Pierpaolo Donati (2015a; 2015b; 2015c) calls the “lib/lab” compromise in social policy. By millennial goals, I mean the eight international Millennium Development Goals formulated during the Millennium Summit of the United Nations in 2000 and subsequently enshrined in the United Nations Millennium Declaration. These goals were extremely ambitious, including the total eradication worldwide of poverty by 2015 and the achievement of universal primary education. Although by 2015 the world had not achieved these millennial goals, progress was at least impressive. World poverty has since been halved, and primary enrollment in education has now reached 91% (UN 2015).
The Economist’s response to such success was to conclude that “the world now knows how to reduce poverty” (Economist 2013). The Economist admits that poverty was reduced in part by “a lot of targeted policies – basic social safety nets and cash-transfer schemes, such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia” (Economist 2013). Such policies are what Donati means by a lab or labor approach to social problems. The lab or labor approach employs laws; bureaucratized services; and income transfers.
This lab or labor approach leaves economic conservatives uneasy, and The Economist, a conservative outlet, is no exception. It is rather a lib or liberal or neo-liberal approach that the conservatives favor. Such lib approach puts its faith in the economic market, the more unfettered the better. Thus, predictably, according to The Economist, “Most of the credit” for eradicating poverty “must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow – and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution” (Economist 2013).
Donati sees limitations to both the lib and lab approaches and to the limited compromise between them. In fact, he argues that the limited alternation between lib/lab tendencies is part of what hampers efforts to deal adequately with social exclusion. Thus, along with Professor Margaret Archer (see Donati and Archer 2015), Donati calls instead for more input from the third, civil sector between market and government.
Although I am myself more partial to the labor side of things, I am going to draw on Donati’s lib/lab understanding as I pursue my task in this paper. That task, as indicated by my title, is to describe the successes and failures of democracies in address to social and cultural exclusion.
I must admit I had to play a bit of catch-up to present this paper. I come from the United States, which was enclosed by walls even before Donald Trump. Thus, while Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world have been speaking for decades now of exclusion, outside of public health, that vocabulary is fairly unknown in the U.S. We follow more what the World Health Organization (WHO) literature review on exclusion calls the rights approach (see Matheison et al. 2008), which emphasizes rights and privileges, or disparities and inequalities. In relation to the poor specifically, we tend to speak not of exclusion but of insecurity as in food insecurity.
Coming from a rights approach, we in the U.S. do not connect exclusion specifically with the poor. On the contrary, when we in the U.S. think specifically of exclusion, we tend to think more of the non-poor. We have, for example, been more preoccupied with the so-called glass ceiling on women’s advancement. In contrast with Germany and the United Kingdom, the U.S. has yet to elect a female head of state, and it is apparent from our last presidential election that there remains in the U.S. considerable uneasiness even among women with a woman in that executive position. We likewise have been preoccupied with the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the institution of marriage, which is a major way in which people participate in the social order.
None of which is to say that the U.S. has no problems with what can be called “the most excluded”. The U.S. does have such problems. In fact, in comparison with many other democracies, American problems are actually worse.
Because how we talk about our problems is in fact part of our problem, I will begin by briefly rehearsing the history of this term exclusion and the multidimensional understanding of poverty it implies. I will follow that with a broad look at how democracies of the southern hemisphere achieved progress in the Millennium Development Goals and the difficulties facing them going further.
Then I will look more closely at the progress combatting social and cultural exclusion made by the nations of the European Union since their joint commitment toward that end at the Lisbon Summit of March 2000. In that analysis, I will use the U.S. as a benchmark, not because I share my compatriot’s view of the U.S. as the world’s greatest democracy but because on the contrary, some of the problems show up starker in the U.S. and because accordingly some of the EU’s successes show up better by that comparison.
Finally, I will return to Donati’s lib/lab framework. From that perspective, I will comment on the call to more action on the part of the civil society that constitutes the third sector.
Exclusion as a Concept
To address the problem of exclusion effectively, we must understand it correctly and measure it properly. Thus, how we talk about exclusion and what we mean by it is fundamental to the task.
Current talk of exclusion traces back to 1974 and the French Secretary of State for Social Action, René Lenoir. Lenoir spoke of the “most excluded”, under which category he included the poor; the mentally and physically disabled; the suicidal and drug addicted; and those otherwise marginalized. It was a time when France was preoccupied with the problem of full employment, and Lenoir’s classification evoked the concern of French sociologist Emile Durkheim for social integration (Matheison et al. 2008).
Exclusion was quickly picked up throughout Europe, somewhat displacing references to poverty. From there, the framework of exclusion was adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and subsequently by the World Bank, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
What accounts for the rapid appeal of exclusion as a socio-political category? A variety of explanations have been offered, some critical of the term (Beall 2002; Gore and Figueiredo 1997; Veit-Wilson 1998) and some appreciative (e.g., Estivill 2003). The critics charge that exclusion is a neo-liberal attempt to depoliticize poverty. The more appreciative commentators suggest that exclusion is less stigmatizing and less provocative than references to poverty and also that exclusion opens up analysis to a more causal orientation that is multidimensional in nature. Exclusion on this view is not just economic but social and cultural as well.
Silver (1994) perhaps has the right of it in observing that part of exclusion’s appeal is that it is polysemic, taking on different meanings for different users, especially across the lib/lab spectrum. On the liberal or neo-liberal side, going back to Lenoir’s original Durkheimian understanding, there is what Silver calls the Solidarity paradigm. This paradigm views exclusion as a “breakdown of a social bond between the individual and society that is cultural and moral rather than economic” (Mathieson et al. 2008: 17). Also called the moral underclass discourse by Levitas (2005), this perspective ends up laying the blame for exclusion either on the individual excluded agents themselves, who lack the moral gumption to do what is necessary to participate appropriately, or on their culture, which fails to pass on participatory norms to succeeding generations. The latter view, which American sociologists call Culture of Poverty Theory, is very prevalent in the United States but has also been picked up in Europe, as by the Tories in the U.K. (Levitas 2005).
On the other side of the divide, exclusion can fit into a labor framework via what Levitas (2005) calls the redistributionist discourse. This perspective counterpoises exclusion to full citizenship, understanding exclusion either as a discriminatory denial of rights or, as Sen (2000) puts it, an unintended consequence of social dynamics or policies.
To fully distinguish the lib/lab understandings here, it is helpful to draw on Professor Margaret Archer’s (2013) acronym SAC – which stands for structure, agency, and culture. In much contemporary sociology, these three categories have collapsed into each other, with structure being swallowed by culture, and culture, reinterpreted as practice, being swallowed up thereby into agency (Porpora 2015). The result is the loss of crucial distinctions. Against this current, Archer has defended a pair of analytical dualisms, distinguishing agency first from structure and then from culture.
On Archer’s (1996) view, culture refers to intelligibilia, or to what can be interpreted. It is that to which Max Weber applied the term Verstehen and which Anglophone philosophy distinguishes as requiring understanding rather than explanation. Included in this category are our intersubjective experiences, namely, shared values, beliefs, norms, and rules. Structure, on the other hand, refers not to what we necessarily experience but to the relations that organize our collective life – gender and class relations, for example, or the division of labor. In contrast with the intelligibilia that comprise culture, structural relations are more objective or material in that they often can exist even without anyone’s notice. Agency, as the actions of specific human actors, is always culturally informed and social structurally positioned but is analytically distinct from both structural and cultural contexts.
The relevance of these distinctions with regard to exclusion pertains especially to the most excluded and, specifically, to understanding why they are excluded. Are the most excluded excluded by virtue of their own agency through personally poor choices and lack of initiative? Is the problem subcultural, with those living in segregated communities passing on poor values and coping skills to their children? Or is the problem due to the objective opportunity structure, particularly a scarcity of well-paying jobs? Although the problem is likely a combination of all three factors – structure, agency, and culture – the emphasis tends to vary across the lib/lab divide with liberal sentiment favoring the agential and cultural factors and the labor sentiment emphasizing the opportunity structure.
Between the lib/lab approaches to exclusion described above, we see additional ambiguities in the concept of exclusion. Is exclusion a category or state or is it a process? Does it reference a binary or a continuum? And beyond the economic, what are the social and cultural aspects of exclusion, and how do they interrelate?
Our answers to these much debated questions affect what we consider the problem to be addressed. The suggestion of Lenoir’s original formulation was that the excluded were a category of people, namely those whose life chances are most vulnerable. But even there, that most vulnerable category is constituted by multiple exclusions, each understood as a verb or process. If so, then there must be other people who are excluded in only slightly fewer ways.
Should we not also concern ourselves with exclusions beyond those typifying the category of the most excluded? Aside from moral concern for the injustices associated with such exclusions as the glass ceiling for women, Teichman (2016: 5) points out that attention beyond the most excluded is needed even just for policy reasons alone. She observes, for example, that when improvements occur more slowly for the working poor than for the poorest, inevitable resentments arise that pit social classes against each other. As an American, I can certainly attest to such destabilizing resentment in my country. There, the tension is exacerbated by perceived racial differences, that is, by rural, working-poor whites mistakenly associating the non-working poor with urban blacks. However much that mistaken association prevailed, the election of Donald Trump was partially fueled by the resentment of poor, rural working whites for a welfare entitlement program that neglects them.
Such considerations push us to understand exclusion not as a binary but as a continuum that applies to more than just those most excluded. At the same time and for the same reasons, we must understand exclusion not just as a state but as a multidimensional array of relations.
That multidimensionality is meant to direct us beyond economics to social and cultural factors. The problem is that when exclusion remains identified with the most excluded, the social and cultural factors considered stay narrowly circumscribed around economics. Consider the twenty or so indicators of poverty and exclusion adopted in 2001 by the European Council in Laeken. Eight indicators specifically measure risk of poverty in different forms. Another seven deal with joblessness or unemployment, which might be considered social indicators but essentially are also economic. Life expectancy and health, also measured, are as much physical as social, which leaves schooling as the one most social or cultural category.
The same applies to the Human Development Index developed by Amartya Sen. A composite of three main factors – life expectancy, education, and per capita income, only education is exclusively social – and even it has economic implications.
The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (GMPI) developed jointly in 2010 by The United Nations Development Programme and Oxford University is better in this regard as it incorporates more measures of a social nature, such as access to plumbing, potable water, electricity along with educational and nutritional measures. Yet access to consumables also remains largely an economic consideration. Even more socially sensitive perhaps is the Bristol Social Exclusion Matrix (Levitas et al 2007; Matheison et al. 2008), which includes a range of clearly social indicators relating to cultural and political participation.
Political participation especially has not received sufficient emphasis. It is an important lacuna because, as Teichman (2016) argues, one of the factors that seems to account for progress among developing nations is political consensus on the parameters of that project. As long as such participation is incomplete and as long as powerful social partisans aim at keeping it incomplete, that consensus cannot be fully achieved. Even without intentional exclusion, inequality itself exacerbates it. Thus, one of the challenges facing democracies in their address to exclusion is dealing with forces that contribute to intensifying inequality.
I rehearse these various understandings or operationalizations of exclusion because a range of United Nations and multinational organizations affirm that what progress has been made on inclusion has depended heavily on better data collection (Matheison et al. 2008) so that what data we collect becomes vital. In the rest of this paper, I will cover what we know of how well democracies have faired in their address to social and cultural exclusion as it has been more narrowly understood in this literature but will also try to go beyond that narrower understanding to address forms of social and cultural exclusion that are not necessarily tied to poverty but to issues of sexuality and political participation that more fully relate to the wider agenda of Pope Francis that this plenary is meant to assist. I will go next to the successes and failures associated with developing countries, turning from there to the United States and Europe.
Successes and Failures with Exclusion in Developing Countries
The number of democracies in the world is a matter of some dispute that depends on what one means by democracy. The U.S.-based Freedom House ranks two thirds of the world’s countries as free or at least partly free, and Oxford University’s Our World in Data likewise counts a majority of countries as democracies. Somewhat more conservatively, the Economist Intelligence Unit puts the number of full or flawed democracies at only 45%.
While for the developing world as a whole we do not have comprehensive data just on democracies, we have a good proxy in the data from the United Nation’s (2015) final report on its Millennium Development Goals, which in the developing world apply to democracies and non-democracies alike. The Millennium Declaration, adopted by the UN General Assembly on September 8, 2000, identified eight different goals to be achieved by the world by 2015.
A number of the Millennium Goals, especially “development and poverty eradication”, deal with the problem we are calling exclusion in all its multidimensional nuance. Specifically, beyond extreme poverty itself, measured as those subsisting on less than $1.25 / day, development and poverty eradication encompass such concerns as employment and vulnerable employment; food insecurity; education and literacy; and health and access to medical care. Sensitive to social and cultural considerations, the goal also gives special attention to women and ethnic minorities.
In broad measure, the Millennium Project was both broadly successful but not completely so in its address to those most economically, socially, and culturally excluded. If we measure extreme poverty as those living on $1.25 per day or less, then even ahead of schedule, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty halved. Admittedly, a good part of that progress can be attributed to the People’s Republic of China, which, despite its name, is not considered a democracy by any of the indices identified above. Even so, however, there has been progress elsewhere as well.
Among successes were general improvements worldwide in employment. The percentage of workers living in extreme poverty dropped from 50% to 11%, which suggests some improvement in basic pay. That suggestion is reinforced by the growth worldwide of a middle class, defined as those in developing countries now living on at least $4 / day. Whereas in 1991 only 18% of the population in developing countries could be so categorized, today fully half are middle class by that definition. Women specifically have improved their situation. Outside of the agricultural sector, women in developing countries now constitute 41% of the paid workforce, which is up from 35% in 1990 (UN 2015: 5).
The situation of women has also improved considerably with regard to education, where they have largely narrowed the gap with men on educational attainment. In fact, now in South Asia, girls surpass boys in primary school enrollment. Looking at girls and boys combined, primary education has risen from 83% in 2000 to 91% today. That figure is edging toward the 97% level considered universal education. Literacy, similarly, among youth aged 15-24 has risen from 83% in 1990 to 91% today.
Global health statistics have also improved. The level of undernourishment in developing countries has been nearly halved from 23% to under 13%. Infant mortality likewise has been more than halved from 90/1000 to 43/1000. As about 84% of children worldwide have received at least one dose of measles vaccine, the number of annually reported measles cases have declined by 67%. Some 13.6 million people are now living with some form of antiretroviral therapy, and between 2000 and 2013 the number of people newly infected by HIV has dropped 40%.
Finally, there is greater inclusion of access to consumer goods. In particular, today there are about seven billion mobile-cellular subscriptions and some three billion Internet users.
How were these Millennium Goals achieved? First, it must be understood that the Millennial project followed and in some ways reacted to a regime in the world system that had been almost exclusively liberal or neoliberal in character. That regime culminated in what came to be called the Washington Consensus in reference to the convergent approach to developing countries of three Washington-based institutions: The World Bank; the International Monetary Fund (IMF); and the U.S. Treasury. Although according to economist John Williamson, who coined the term, the Washington Consensus had always included certain anti-poverty provisions, these had been mostly forgotten in an emphasis on marketization and privatization; liberalized markets; and fiscal discipline.
It must similarly be remembered that in contrast with what has been called modernization theory (see especially Rostow 1991), progress among the world’s developing countries could never be understood in isolation. In the first place, developing nations have entered the modern world system (see Wallerstein 2011) not in their original state but after a colonial remolding that converted many diversified economies into monocultures that served the needs of imperial powers. Developing nations consequently were not so much undeveloped as de-developed. Accordingly, they began modernization crippled in various ways, especially by rampant poverty, and forced to enter a world system that had prepared them only for a dependent development vis-à-vis the already industrialized nations (Gunder-Frank 1967).
There was thus an initial period in the 1960s when developing nations tried to nurture their own, indigenous industrial modernization through tariffs and import substitution. This strategy proved a failure, mostly because the tariffs caused rampant inflation and because the cost of the capital goods needed to supply the indigenous industries caused crises in balance of payments.
There then came a switch in strategy to export-oriented growth that soon coincided with the period we know as globalization. During this period, in search of cheaper labor, industry in the developed world began moving operations to developing countries. Erected thereby were extensive trade networks in intermediate goods called Global Value Chains (GVCs).
The position of the developing countries continued to remain fragile. Always strapped for cash and forced to choose in opportunity costs between growth and service provision, developing nations are especially susceptible to both natural disasters and such humanly produced crises as fuel hikes and financial collapses. Thus, in the 1980s many developing countries went into such serious debt that they became unable to service it.
There then followed the period of IMF-imposed structural adjustment, under which to receive IMF help in debt service, developing countries were required to liberalize their economies. Among other things, liberalization meant the elimination of tariffs; privatization of state firms and even services; and contraction of social services. Between 1980 and 1985, some 40 developing nations underwent some period of structural adjustment (Teichman 2016: 40).
The economic dislocation and government austerity associated with structural adjustment only worsened the quality of life in affected countries as did the overall neo-liberal regime governing the world system. Thus during the 1980s, 17 countries in Latin America declined in per capita income; extreme poverty rose from 13% to 17%; and job losses in the formal sector fueled an expanding informal economy (Teichman 2016: 42). In both Latin America and Africa, there were spikes in child malnutrition (Teichman 2016: 44). In both El Salvador and Guatemala, for example, some 75% of children under twelve were to some degree malnourished (Porpora 1992).
With the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and other backlashes against neoliberalism, it finally became understood that cutbacks on government services hurt development (Mitchelle and Sparke 2015). Thus, the Millennium project marked a partial departure from the entirely liberal approach to development. In some ways, it marked a post-Washington consensus consensus (Mitchell and Sparke 2015), led by the IMF and especially the World Bank (Teichman 2016: 3). The new consensus was a realization that a one-size fits-all, lib-style focus on economic growth and open markets would not suffice on its own to lift people out of poverty. That approach had to be supplemented by new attention to inclusion, in the first place by lab-style, state policy that actively targeted poverty reduction.
The new consensus did not, however, just represent a new combination of lib/lab approaches. In some ways, it has sought to go beyond the lib/lab framework altogether. Specifically, it seeks to incorporate multiple stakeholders from the civil sector, like non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even large scale philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation. The approach essentially has been 3P: a partnership of public, private, and philanthropic stakeholders. In addition, furthermore, to lab-style state efforts, the lending approach of the World Bank has also been to circumvent the state in partnership with local, micro collaborators.
There have been essentially four main prongs to the effort. The first was a lib-style mechanism but one that, unlike the former structural adjustment programs, was more carrot than stick. I am speaking specifically of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative (HIPCI), which has granted outright debt relief to nations pledging to liberalize their economies and exercise fiscal restraint.
The second prong was lab-style state-initiated programs that target poverty reduction. Among the most effective of these have been the Conditional Cash Transfer Programs. Brazil’s Bolsa program, which I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, was an early model. Basically, Conditional Cash Transfer Programs provide poor households, often female-headed, with small cash amounts in exchange for fulfilling certain conditions like insuring that children attend school and receive vaccination. The cash transfer programs thus achieve several goals simultaneously: relieving some of the worst effects of penury, like hunger, and integrating children and families into the social system. These programs do reach the poorest, with 80% of funding going to the poorest 40% of households (Teichman 2016: 57). With the success of the Bolsa program, Conditional Cash Transfer programs have spread throughout Latin America and also in parts of Asia and Africa.
Social investment funds have constituted a third prong of the effort. Drawing also on philanthropic agencies, these funds are given mostly to NGOs and community groups for labor-intensive projects to, among other things, relieve some unemployment. They are furthermore attempts to offset “market failures by using market tools to create market subjects” (Michelle and Sparke 2015: 3). In pursuit of grants and funds and in managing “return on investment” the poor are encouraged to buy into and become proper market subjects; being subnational, local initiatives, such funding is also supposedly post-political (Michelle and Sparke 2015). There are now over a hundred such investments in over fifty countries (Teichman 2016: 51).
The fourth prong of the millennial effort, which has especially drawn philanthropic participation, is investment in micro-financing institutions modeled after the Grameen bank in Bangladesh. In 2006, the Grameen Bank and its founder, economist Muhammed Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Operating on the principle that loans are better than charity, such micro-financing institutions or chit funds are particularly empowering of women, who constitute the majority of borrowers. Again, circumventing the government, the market, and and an often failed welfare system, micro-financing seems to move beyond a lib/lab formulation.
As successful as all these measures have been, they have not been completely so. Certainly, in terms of well-being, moving people beyond $1.25 / day is a very low bar. Progress, moreover, has been uneven. In sub-Saharan Africa, some 40% of the population still has not attained that minimum standard. Almost a billion people still experience hunger due to unemployment, weather, and disasters. Throughout the developing world, women still face discrimination in work, pay, and other forms of participation. Although women have narrowed the gender gap in primary and secondary schooling, they still face a wide gap in tertiary education.
Other failures remain. Perhaps the most glaring is an urban-rural gap. To use the language of exclusion, in developing countries as in, we will see, developed countries also, rural areas have not been included in many social and cultural gains. In rural areas across the global south, only 56% of rural births are attended by skilled health care personnel as compared with 87% in urban areas. Many of the poorest, most remote children fail to receive needed vaccines, and half the rural population lacks improved sanitation as compared with only 18% of urbanites. And in many countries, like India, inadequate attention to disablement means, among other things, that many disabled children fail to attend school.
One last notable failure concerns employment. As in the developed world as well, among developing countries, employment opportunities are not expanding quickly enough to keep up with the popular demand for jobs. In fact, the global ratio of employment to population fell from 62% in 1991 to 60% in 2015. As I say, and as is generally recognized, this problem is serious for both developed and developing countries. Despite progress, the Millennial Report (UN 2015:19) avers, almost half the world’s “employed people are still working in vulnerable conditions” that do not amount to “decent” jobs. As I move now from the developing nations to those already developed, I think the time has come to seriously ask whether capitalism any longer can generate not only enough jobs but enough jobs to afford a decent standard of living, and if, not, what do we do about it.
The United States
I turn now to the United States, which, according to Fortune Magazine, is the world’s richest democracy, at least in terms of personal wealth (Sherman 2015). I refer to the U.S. as a democracy, and it actually imagines itself the greatest such. It is thus interesting to see that Britain’s Economist Intelligence Group lists the U.S. not among the world’s 19 full democracies but only among its second tier of flawed democracies. Whatever else one makes of that assessment, it indicates how even great wealth does not guarantee successful democratic address to all problems of social and cultural exclusion. Indeed, some of such problems the U.S. fails to address successfully – or not address at all – compromise its very standing as a democracy. I am thinking here particularly of inequality.
But as much of what I will say about the U.S. will be critical, let me at least begin with a few ways in which the United States has done well combating social and cultural exclusion. First of all, in 1990, the U.S. passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in all areas of life. It has meant that many pursuits have become more accessible to people with disabilities so that they can participate. Among other things, it has meant lowered drinking fountains, widened bathrooms, and wheelchair accessibility on buses. The law has not solved all problems of accessibility for disabled persons, but it has been an important landmark.
Likewise, despite its great unpopularity in some circles, the U.S. still has a strong, national policy of affirmative action, encouraging greater social participation among women and minorities. Again, the various initiatives associated with American affirmative action have hardly resolved the issue. The U.S., for example, still lags behind many other countries in the number of women on corporate boards and in government (CBC 2015). But at least America continues to move positively in this direction.
It is also worth noting that since a Supreme Court decision in 2015, same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty states and that public support for this form of inclusiveness is now over 60% (Gallup 2016). And lastly, I note because of its great currency, that despite the continued opposition of the Trump administration, there are still many so-called “sanctuary cities” like my own Philadelphia that strive to remain hospitable to the social and cultural inclusion of undocumented immigrants and refugees.
I turn now to ways in which the U.S. is exemplary only in how even a great democracy can fail to pursue social and cultural inclusion. As observed by the Fortune Magazine article to which I referred above, the U.S. is not only the world’s richest democracy in terms of personal wealth, but also in those terms one of the world’s most unequal. The wealth concentration in the U.S. is such that the top tenth of a percent of the population has almost as much as the entire bottom 90%, with a small, nine percent, middle class having a comparable amount (The Guardian 2014). The concentration of wealth in America is so consequential that the latest issue of Contemporary Sociology (3/2017) reviewed seven recent books on the topic, one by Professor Joseph Stiglitz. I am accordingly going to organize the remainder of my remarks on the U.S. around the theme of inequality.
The inequalities extent in the U.S. is multidimensional and not just economic. I begin, however, with the ramifications of economic inequality, which ultimately, in terms of Professor Donati’s lib/lab distinction, makes the U.S. the kingdom of economic liberalism or what has been called market fundamentalism. Market fundamentalism is a particularly apt designation, as for many in the US, the market, connoting freedom, is practically an object of worship.
It is a basic point of Marxian social theory that economic power translates into cultural and political power. So it has been in the United States. Whether voice is direct or representative, democracy is supposed to mean that people enjoy equal say in the political decisions that affect them. Equal say, however, requires more than just equal vote. More important than voting on the items on an agenda of choices is what is called agenda-setting, the determination of the choices to be voted on (Lukes 2005). In the case of general elections, agenda-setting refers not to voting for one candidate over another but determining who the candidates are.
As viable political candidacy requires substantial money, those with much more money can participate so much more than everyone else in candidate selection that equal say for all is effectively vitiated. If so, then America is indeed seriously compromised as a democracy. The effects are apparent. The money wielded, for example, just by the Koch brothers and their associates has effectively pulled the Republican party so to the right that Republican congressmen are terrified of admitting that climate change is real or humanly produced (Mayer 2017).
It is likewise due in large part to the unequal role of money in American politics that, as Bernie Sanders put it during our last electoral cycle, the U.S. is “the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care to all people as a right” (Greenberg 2015). During the battle over America’s Affordable Care Act or Obama-care as it is known, the insurance industry alone spent over $100 million to keep health care coverage completely privatized (Callaghan 2016). More recently, presented with a Republican party health care plan that would result in 24 million Americans losing their newly gained health coverage, the Republican right-wing balked, effectively because the plan even then remained for them and their moneyed backers too inclusive.
It is not just in terms of limited access to health care that the U.S. remains exceptional. It is exceptional as well among major democracies more fundamentally in limiting citizen access to political participation. In his last press conference as president, Barack Obama observed how the U.S. is “the only country in the advanced world that makes it harder to vote rather than easier” (Obama 2017).
In answer to a follow-up question, Obama affirmed that he was alluding to voting rights. As he went on to say, “The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote is – it traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery and it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise” (Obama 2017). “And”, Obama concluded, “that’s not who we are”.
Well, Obama quickly corrected, “That shouldn’t be who we are”, because in fact, it is who we are. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supposed to do away with all such barriers to voting within the fifty states, but states persist in playing what is called “whack a mole”, “imposing new discriminatory restrictions every time an existing one” is “whacked” or “ruled illegal” (Popp 2017).
It is one of the vulnerabilities of democracy that those elected to political power can use their political power to so subvert democracy that they stay in power. So it was with the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizens United versus the Federal Election Commission. Effectively, the court, appointed by those that wealth placed in power, ruled that wealthy citizens could not be prevented from using their wealth to help decide elections or set the agenda of choices.
Likewise with voting rights. States desiring to limit the participation of certain voters, say black voters, have at least two major tools they use. First, they directly suppress voting via strict photo identification requirements or registration restrictions (Brennan Center for Justice 2017). In America’s 2016 presidential election, 14 states had such restrictions in effect (Brennan Center for Justice 2017). The second way in which those in office inure themselves against popular vote is by gerrymandering, that is, redrawing legislative districts to ensure that in each a majority of voters will support those currently in office. Today, the Republicans have so successfully gerrymandered that the U.S. is now close to a one-party state.
Even beyond political participation, racial inequality is particularly acute in the United States. Latinos make up 17% of the American population and African Americans 13%. Whereas the poverty rate among non-Hispanic whites is only nine percent, the poverty rate is 21% for Hispanics and 24% for African Americans. Especially for African Americans, the disparity shows up as well in infant mortality rates. Among non-Hispanic whites in America, the infant mortality rate is only 5.3/1000 live births. For non-Hispanic black women, the rate is 13.3, almost three times higher (MacDorman and Matthews 2011; CDC 2014). That 13.3 rate compares with an overall infant mortality rate of 2.3 in Finland and in Germany of 3.4 (Ingraham 2014).
In the U.S., black people suffer another form of exclusion: mass incarceration. Seychelles aside, as of 2016, the U.S. has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, incarceration being the most total exclusion from society. Although, as previously mentioned, African Americans make up only 13% of the American population, they comprise 37% of the prison population. Between the ages of 20 and 34, approximately one out of nine African American men is behind bars (Liptak 2008). This condition has been called “the new Jim Crow” (Alexander 2012) because the ramifications of imprisonment function like the old Jim Crow, making it harder for those once imprisoned to find afterward legal, gainful employment. Thus, at nine percent, the unemployment rate for blacks is more than double the unemployment rate for whites.
The higher unemployment rate for blacks is due to multiple factors besides mass incarceration. In a competitive economy, education matters a great deal. In the U.S., however, where residential segregation has intensified over the past three decades (Fry and Taylor 2012), education is funded locally. Thus, lower income neighborhoods with smaller tax base have less funded schools. The poorest neighborhoods end up with the poorest schools. One consequence is that while 86% of white students graduate from high school, only 69% of black students do (Governing 2017), well below millennial ambitions.
Beyond race, there is another form of residential disparity that does not distinguish the United States. I mean the disparity between town and country, i.e., the polarity between urban and rural areas. As I think now is fairly familiar to the world, the U.S. is highly polarized in these terms. The polarity is partly economic. Although urban blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor in the U.S., in truth most of the country’s poor are white and rural.
Whereas America’s urban centers tend to be cosmopolitan and tied more to the benefits of globalization, the rural areas remain parochial and bear much more globalization’s costs. It is the rural areas particularly that have felt the decline in middle-income jobs. Whereas in 1980, 59% of households were between two thirds and double the nation’s median income, by 2011, only 51% of households could be so classified, and the share of income going to the middle class declined from 60% to 45% (Tankersley 2014).
The middle class’s loss of position is part of what has fueled the populist movement in the U.S. and elsewhere. In truth, though, the problem is only partially attributable to globalization. The percent contribution of manufacturing to U.S. GDP remains roughly the same now as it was in 1980. How can that be? The jobs have disappeared but no longer as in the 1980s because they have moved overseas. Instead, the jobs have disappeared because they have become more automated. American manufacturers are doing more with fewer. It is one of the unfolding capitalist processes identified by Marx, but it is not quite globalization. The jobs are simply not there for Trump to bring back.
The trend toward automation will continue. It has been estimated, for example, that the advent of driverless cars – taxis, limousines, trucks – could mean the disappearance of 4.1 million American jobs, which will hit rural white men disproportionately (Langlois 2016). Again, we must confront the prospect that we have reached a stage of capitalist development where the vaunted market will not automatically, inevitably, necessarily generate enough decent, middle class jobs to go around.
The European Union
As I said, I employ the U.S. as a baseline not because I share my compatriots’ view of it as the world’s greatest democracy. If anything, the statistics I am about to present suggest otherwise. Rather, I make the U.S. a baseline because in comparison with the U.S., Europe looks good on many indicators that it might not otherwise count in the category of success. To begin with, in contrast with the U.S., Europe does not generally experience the threats to political inclusion we find in many American states. There are no outright attempts to discourage citizens from voting.
Likewise, almost all Europeans are included under universal health coverage. The effect shows up in health statistics. In terms of life expectancy, the U.S. ranks 43rd in the world with a life expectancy at birth of just under 79 (WHO 2016). Nineteen European nations rank higher, including Spain, where the life expectancy at birth is just over 82, and Italy where it is almost 83. At the other end of life, among OECD countries, the U.S. has the fifth highest rate of child (under five) mortality and is outperformed by 23 European nations with lower child mortality rates. Luxembourg and Iceland top the list with infant morality rates of 1.9 and 2.0, respectively (Wikipedia 2017). From this perspective, the European community can be considered to be considerably more inclusive of more years of life.
Part of the problem for the U.S. is inequality, which, as seen in the previous section, via both race and class differences, affects, among other things, both infant mortality and life expectancy. In terms of income as well as wealth, the U.S. is now one of the world’s most unequal societies, reflecting its lib emphasis on freedom over equality. Thus, for income after taxes and transfers, 24 European nations have lower Gini Indices than the United States (OECD 2017).
One of the other quality of life issues inequality affects is social mobility across income rankings, measured, for example, as the correlation between parents’ and children’s incomes. So defined, social mobility reflects how inclusive upper ranks of society are to those who begin life lower down. As signified by the so-called American Dream, the United States has long been thought of as the land of opportunity. According, however, to what has been called “The Great Gatsby Curve” (Corak 2013), we should no longer expect it to be. The Great Gatsby curve marks an inverse relation between economic inequality and social mobility. And sure enough, with greater equality, when it comes to social mobility, nine European nations outperform the U.S., including, not just the Nordic countries but also larger countries like France and Germany (Gould 2012).
It might be argued that inequality and social mobility aside, the liberal approach of the U.S. nevertheless provides a higher standard of living. The evidence, however, suggests the opposite. According to OECD statistics, comparing across countries in terms of dollars, the earnings of the tenth percentile in ten European countries exceed the earnings of the tenth percentile in the U.S. (Gould and Wething 2012).
Compared with the U.S. emphasis on liberal market solutions, the EU is much more lab-oriented. The EU dedicated itself to greater inclusion at its 2000 summit in Lisbon and then then once again in 2010 when the European Commission adopted the Europe 2020 strategic plan. Thus, as a percentage of GDP, most European countries spend more on their safety nets than the U.S. (Spross 2015; World Bank 2006) and direct it more specifically toward the most excluded (Spross 2015). As a result, the taxes and transfer programs of some 17 European nations do more to reduce relative poverty than do the corresponding programs of the U.S. (Gould and Wething 2012).
One of the signature goals of Europe 2020 is to lift some 20 million Europeans beyond “the risk of poverty or social exclusion” (European Commission 2010). The risk of poverty or social exclusion is a composite of three factors: risk of poverty; material deprivation; and un- or underemployment. To be at risk of poverty is a relative measure defined against median income. Thus, to be at risk of poverty is to be living, after taxes and social transfers, at less than 60% of a society’s household-size-adjusted median income. Material deprivation refers to an inability to secure the minimal material requisites for social participation. These are indexed by nine specific lacks, among them, lack of a car; washing machine; television; phone (including a mobile); and the wherewithal for an annual vacation away from home. Although unemployment needs no explication, underemployment is equated with living in a household of low work intensity. A household of low work intensity is one where the combined number of months worked by all working age adults (exclusive of students aged 18-24) is 20% or less than the total combined months they could have worked.
On these measures, with economic crisis, conditions in Europe have somewhat worsened. According to the most recent data from Eurostat (2016), almost 24% of people in the EU-28 are at risk on at least one of the three indicators of exclusion. Social transfers do mitigate the risk, but that still leaves 17% at risk of poverty (Eurostat 2014: 26; 2016a).
Similarly, as of 2012, 20% of people in the EU-28 were materially deprived (Eurostat 2014) and as late as 2015, some eight percent were severely deprived – that is unable to pay for at least four of the nine items on the list of material deprivation (Eurostat 2016a). One of these items – being unable to face unexpected financial expenses – is experienced by some 37% of people throughout the EU-28, although there is considerable variation across individual countries. Generally, the problem is more severe in Eastern Europe as in Hungary, where 60% of the population report having been in this situation. But it is a problem as well in Western Europe, where, aside from Sweden and Norway, the problem still afflicts over 20% of the population in each nation (Eurostat 2016a).
Eurostat (2015: 59) reports that in 2014 for those between 20 and 64 years of age, the EU employment rate was 69%, short of the 75% Europe target for 2020. Most west European nations and the Nordic countries had rates above 75%, although some Mediterranean countries like Greece and Spain were below 60%. Even in those countries, employment rates among men exceeded 60%, which, however, then suggests a different issue, namely an employment gap between men and women. That gap has at least closed five percentage points since 2005.
The most recent statistics (Eurostat 2016a) indicate that 10.5% of the EU-28 population is living in households of very low work intensity. The figures were again highest in countries like Greece (16.8%) and Spain (15.4%) and lowest in countries like Poland (6.9%), the Czech Republic (6.8%), and Sweden (5.8%). When we remove factors like retirement; education or training; or illness or disability, the most frequent reason men offer for unemployment (12.4%) is the absence of jobs (Eurostat 2013: 135). Women offer that explanation 8.5% of the time but more frequently family or personal responsibilities (50.2%). Similarly over 36% of men and 23% of women cite lack of jobs for working only part-time (Eurostat 2013: 145).
Another way of looking at the same picture is in terms of unemployment, defined essentially as an adult not currently working but actively seeking work. As of February 2017, the seasonably adjusted unemployment rate for Europe stood at 9.5%, which is just over double what it is in the United States. The rate is particularly high for young people (between ages 15 and 24), standing at over 17% (Eurostat 2017).
Lack of jobs is not the only form that un- or underemployment can take. Thirteen percent of those working are still categorized as at risk of poverty (Eurostat 2014: 28). That figure is a possible indication that the economy is not providing enough jobs with adequate pay or at least not enough such jobs at the skill level needed. Indeed, in 2012, some 17% of EU workers were low-wage, i.e., earning less than 66% of median hourly compensation (Eurostat 2013: 152).
The underemployment problem is no doubt partly due to a mismatch between population skills and job requirements. The figures for employment by education suggest as much. For people with tertiary education beyond high school, the employment rate was 84%, compared with a rate of 73% for people with just secondary education and only 54% for people who did not complete high school (Eurostat 2013: 136). Another way to put this point is that 41% of early school leavers are jobless (Eurostat 2015: 86).
One of the headline goals of Europe 2020 was to foster educational attainment generally and, specifically, to increase from 31% to 40% the share of the population aged 30-34 who have completed tertiary education. Toward that objective, the EU can count some definite successes. Early leaving from educational training has dropped from 17% in 2002 to 11% in 2015; and between 2002 and 2015 tertiary degrees grew from just under 24% to just under 39%, moving in well ahead of time on the Europe 2020 goal (Eurostat 2016b). Strikingly too, it has been especially women who have taken the lead here. In this age bracket, just over 43% have tertiary degrees as compared with 34% of men.
Regardless of how much un- and underemployment is due to mismatches between population skill levels and job requirements, some of the problem is again also likely due to there just being insufficient good jobs to go around. And with a new wave of automation upon us (Economist 2016), economic dislocation is likely to continue for the near future.
It is in part the resulting insecurity among middle classes along with attendant cultural changes brought by immigrants and refugees that makes indigenous reaction against them so pronounced. Because negative popular reaction to the current immigration and refugee problem is understandable, the Holy Father, Pope Francis has delivered what even Breitbart News (Williams 2016a) describes as a nuanced position: while allowing that each nation has a right to control its own borders and to take in no more refugees than it can handle, Pope Francis nevertheless exhorts all to do what they can to accommodate these most excluded among us. Pope Francis also called it hypocrisy to call oneself Christian and chase away a refugee (Wiliams 2016b).
Unfortunately, the world has not uniformly responded positively to the Holy Father’s call. In the U.S., where people overwhelmingly call themselves Christian, some 30 governors resisted President Obama’s plans to resettle refugees in their states. Meanwhile, the U.K. has now left the EU in part due to the issue of refugees and migrants. The nations of continental Europe also struggle with the problem.
It is perhaps the refugee issue that most reveals the need to heed Professor Donati’s call to move beyond a lib/lab framework. The problem that Donati sees in both approaches – the liberal and the labor – is their replacement of human feeling by external causal mechanisms. The liberal approach yields human feeling to market forces and the liberal approach to bureaucratic rules. Under both regimes, Donati argues, we individual citizens become more socially passive, ceasing to feel our social responsibilities and therefore abdicating our personal responsibility for the welfare of others.
The image Donati (2015a: 215) conjures of the modern welfare state is of a snake that “eats its own tail”. Behind the long processes of differentiation and specialization that characterize modernization, Donati argues, stand two central distinctions: that between state and individual; and that between the mass and the particular. With these distinctions, Donati goes on to say, society dissolves the social fabric on which it draws, separating its technical solutions from the fellow feeling and morality that gave rise to them.
In consequence, fellow feeling and morality both become privatized and withdrawn from the public sphere. It thus happens that individuals experience disbursements to needful others as impositions and come to resent those others on the receiving end. I have drawn attention myself to the privatization of morality as it relates to war and its conduct (See Porpora et al. 2013). Donati’s concern for this issue has been more encompassing.
What Donati hopes to see and in fact thinks he does see coming into being is what he calls a new “caring society”, in which more social care-giving does not devolve on either the market or the political state but is an expression of more ethically-based organization in the civil sphere. It is a sector that actually in the U.S. since De Tocqueville, has always been strong. As has often been noted, while the U.S. government may be stingy with charitable giving, individual American citizens score very highly internationally in terms of charitable donations.
Donati (2015a: 227) himself refers to Tocqueville, but if America is a model of associational membership, then a strong civil sphere is not in itself enough. American charitable giving at the individual level is insufficient to reduce poverty and tends to respond more fully to episodic disasters than to sustained problematic conditions. And there remains in America as we have seen, as sharply as in Europe, an ethical failure to countenance the needs of others without accumulating resentment.
Donati recognizes the problem. What he foresees is a greater feeling for social ethics sustained by the structures of a new moral economy based on new institutions and new networks of mutual benefit. What Donati thus hopes will emerge is a new relational society built around what he and Archer (2015) call relational goods. Such a post- or after-modern social formation, Donati believes, could overcome the binary opposition between “competition-profit vs. solidarity-social redistribution” conflicts.
Although I have studied it only in the U.S., at least there I can confirm what Donati says about public moral passivity. Thus, I can only share Donati’s hope for a new, more ethical successor to modernity.
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