In David Lodge's wonderful novel about the academic year 1968-9, Changing Places, a party of Berkeley English profs play a game called Humiliation, in which they have to name the most prominent work of literature that they have never read. One assistant professor, Howard Ringbaum, succumbs to his competitive urge to win by naming the most prominent work of all, and declares that he has never read Hamlet. He wins the game, but when his tenure case comes up a couple of weeks later, he is denied promotion on those very grounds. It's time for me to play a round myself.
I have come to realize that I am in some ways a Hegelian, although I have never read a single work, or even part of a single work, written by Hegel, whom I know mainly as the direct ancestor of Karl Marx. Hegel believed that history consisted of the embodiment of various ideas, and I think there's a great deal of truth to that. Every era--and perhaps every generation--has certain dominant beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, that determine its approach to just about everything--politics, life, and the arts. At the same time, certain battles among various ideas continue indefinitely, with one side or another winning for a while, but without any complete victories that will endure for more than about 80 years at most. One such was identified by the historian Henry Adams, one of those people from the past to whom I feel remarkably close, in the presidential address he wrote for the American Historical Association in 1894. History, he said was trying to become a science, and if it succeeded, it was bound to reach one of three conclusions about where history was going. None of those conclusions, however, was likely to win universal acceptance. I have discussed this address here at least four times in the last 15 years here, I see, and I quote from the first time, all the way back in 2005.
"First, Adams argued, history might accept the tenets of socialism. (Something like this actually happened in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when Marxism in various forms became extremely influential in the historical professions of France, Britain, and the United States.) Yet Adams doubted (too pessimistically, as it turned out), that property owners upon whom universities depended would allow such a new orthodoxy to flourish. Secondly, historians might conclude "that the present evils of the world--its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts--were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years," but that conclusion would be unpopular and could lead anyone who accepted it only to despair. Lastly, he said, historical science might prove "that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion," but in that case, the science would commit suicide."
I still think this was an uncommonly brilliant insight, but I can also see that it suffers from a disease of its age, namely, the tendency to regard human history and human behavior as subject to the same kind of immutable laws that science had found in disciplines like physics and chemistry. As it happens, human behavior continually changes because of the human tendency to react against whatever the status quo may be--a tendency which is to a high degree generational. Thus, by the time he died in 1917, new generations had inaugurated the Progressive era, and although most of the world never became formally socialist, the major industrial nations all put severe limits on the accumulation of wealth--and therefore, of political power--during the first half of the twentieth century, and inequality was drastically reduced. Then, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, came two new trends, one in the historical profession and academia more generally, the other in our politics and society. In the academy, the visions of history as a struggle among nations or among classes gave way to one of a struggle between demographic groups, including a struggle between men (patriarchy) and women. Two generations of scholars have tried to re-interpret the whole past in that light, while anticipating a brighter future in which the last would be first. But in the upper reaches of our society, the philosophy of the Gilded Age--that corporations had both a right and a duty to maximize profits, unfettered by government regulation or high taxes--became predominant once more, and inequality has now surpassed the levels observed in Adams's day, and our new corporate oligarchy is every bit as powerful as the one he saw growing around him in 1894.
The biggest insight in the piece, however, was that any truth arrived at would be unpopular. Here I find two very important sources of our current discontents.
The New Deal, which now looms as an interregnum between two Gilded Ages, was not based merely on moral principles--the idea that some should not have too much while many more others had too little--but on a particular view of economics. The economy was better off when workers and their families could afford to buy the products they made. Corporations contributed more benefit to their workers and the public when executive compensation was effectively capped by taxation. Securities markets needed tight regulation to prevent catastrophic panics. The experience of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s had proven all these things to be true--but some corporate interests refused to accept them. They formed networks and devised strategies to push free market views, and succeeded in making them first mainstream, and then orthodox, in the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, we have more inequality, richer financiers, and, from time to time, threats of financial collapse again. Contrary ideas now have a following among young people in particular, but I am afraid that they may be decades away from becoming dominant again.
An even broader truth, however, may be causing bigger problems because people cannot accept it--especially in the midst of the inequality that has now risen.
Modern society is based on the equality of every individual, and on the individual as the basic social unit. This is far more true today than it was 100 or even fifty years ago, since family structures have tended to break down, and fewer people define themselves based upon family relationships. That gives every individual both a great opportunity and a tremendous responsibility, which can be a huge emotional burden. I remember that when I first read Tocqueville's The Old Regime and the French Revolution, I was struck by his appreciation of a society of orders in which everyone had a particular place. In those days, it occurred to me, men and women thought their place on earth was ordained by God or nature, and did not have to blame themselves if it seemed unfair. In the modern world we are encouraged to blame ourselves, since we theoretically have the same chance as anyone else to reach the top. The self-made man has been an American ideal, in particular, since the beginning of our independent history.
Unfortunately, even at the most egalitarian of times--the mid-20th century--a big gap between the rich and poor persists. We can only have social peace and consensus, I think, if we keep that gap within reasonable bounds, keep ways to rise alive, and, crucially, provide a reasonably secure and happy life to the majority of losers in our ongoing competition, as well as the winners. In the last 40 years we have stopped doing those things. More people are out in the jungle of the workplace competing for at least a decent life, working longer hours, with more needs. Higher education, practically free in mid-century, has become disastrously expensive. Fed by the new ideology I discussed above, millions of women and minorities have come to believe that their demographic status, not our economic system itself, is the source of their problems, and they have sold the Democratic Party on that idea. That in turn has bred resentment among millions of white people who blame solicitude towards nowhites nad immigrants for their declining economic status.
What makes the issue of mobility, and the related issue of ability, so fraught, in my opinion, is this. History shows that in any complex field of endeavor, a small minority of people are much better than anyone else. I have written an entire book showing how true this is in baseball, and I have seen it in my own profession and as a spectator in many other fields. These people are different not because of their race or gender--much less their sexual orientation--but because of almost unique personal characteristics that are scattered more or less at random throughout the population.
As I write the city of New York is wracked by controversies over admissions to its elite high schools and over the Gifted and Talented programs in all its schools, because they are filled with disproportionate numbers of white and Asian students. In my opinion, test scores must continue to determine who gets into those top schools, so as to give the smartest people in our society an opportunity to develop their skills further. We need that minority to perform many important tasks at the highest level, and to teach the rest of us. But those of them that decide to use their skills to maximize their income must face some pretty strict limits on how much they can earn and how much wealth they can acquire. At the same time, we must all pay attention, not simply to letting more representatives of unrepresented groups into a tiny economic elite, but to giving those who will never reach the elite a chance at a decent life. If parents regard an elite school or elite program as their childrens' only hope, most parents will never be satisfied. I do think, by the way, that the admissions process and the college admissions process could changed in one way to make it much fairer. Standardized tests should be varied very significantly from year to year, in form and in content, to make it impossible for targeted test preparation to be more than a long-shot gamble. That would take away the very real advantage of richer kids whose parents can afford such classes.private instruction.
We shall never, in any case, end inequality or injustice on this planet, nor shall we create a Utopia that lasts for more than a generation or two before younger people overthrow it. I wrote 15 years ago that Adams's three alternative views of history might be describe as the utopian, the stoic, and the religious. "Unfortunately," I wrote then, "the stoic view--which I personally believe to be the most useful and accurate, since it alone recognizes limitations on our power to control people and events--while it has nearly always produced the best history, seems, especially during periods of crisis like our own, to suffer from a fatal disadvantage in a contest with either of the other two--its inability to satisfy the eternal human fantasy of living happily ever after." This seems to be more true now than it was in 2005--but I remain stuck with own form of stoicism, which can drive old friends crazy, but still enables me, I think, to provide something here every week that you won't find anywhere else.