[from Michael Lind's review of James Galbraith's Created Unequal, Washingon Monthly, November 1998]
Galbraith concludes with a manifesto: "I call on those who read these pages, whether they are economists or not, in positions of influence or not, to consider the possibility of a politics of full employment, low and stable interest rates, stronger economic growth, higher minimum wages, and declining inequality." In the final section of Created Unequal, he sets forth a program that could unite what he calls "true Progressives" and populists at the cost of horrifying free-market conservatives. Its elements include, among other things, democratic reform of the Federal Reserve; fighting inflation by means of "heterodox stabilization," involving low interest rates and wage pacts, rather than "tight money and balanced budgets"; and a higher minimum wage subject to a discretionary annual adjustment by the president.
All of which raises the question. You and whose army? According to Galbraith, "We will have to accept a certain social discipline on our individual chances, to increase the prospects of rising as a group." The problem lies in the definitions of "we" and "our." A case can be made that Galbraith, in attributing racial and ethnic tensions to inequality, has got the relationship between economic equality and a sense of national or racial community backward. The most egalitarian countries in the world are the nation-states of Northwestern Europe and East Asiacountries that are racially and culturally homogeneous and also have low rates of immigration.
The architects of the Swedish welfare state and Japanese corporate paternalism have been able to call on a powerful sense of ethnocultural nationality that transcended class differences. Would ethnic Swedes support a welfare state disproportionately used by ethnic Lapps? Would Japanese voters support corporate practices that disproportionately benefited Korean immigrants?
The United States is no exception to the rule. What made the New Deal possible between the '30s and the '60s was an unofficial white American cultural nationalism shared by white workers in the North who kept blacks out of unions and white Southern politicians who wrote New Deal legislation to exclude mostly-black agricultural and domestic workers. It is probably no coincidence that progressive-liberal economic egalitarianism had its greatest successes in the U.S. between the '40s and '60s, a generation after the shut-off of mass European immigration accelerated amalgamation in the whiteonly melting pot. Nor is it a coincidence that the Civil Rights revolution drove most of the former constituents of the New Deal Democratic coalition into the Republican party, where they now vote against government programs identified with "others" -blacks and immigrants.
Since the'60s, multicultural identity politics has made it difficult if not impossible for egalitarian liberals to appeal to a common American fate, to use terms like "us" and "our" without qualification. The most popular alternative to racial identity politics, a "civic" nationalism, is no more helpful. A purely territorial and political definition of American identity is too vague and insipid to inspire personal and collective sacrifice, including the sacrifice of higher taxes. Rejecting trans-racial cultural nationalism as the rationale for social equality, egalitarians in the United States tend to fall back on vague appeals to social justice inspired by Marxism or the Protestant Social Gospel. But what if a politics of extreme cultural pluralism or post-national cosmopolitanism is incompatible with a politics of egalitarian nationalism? What if it is necessary to choose between diversity and solidarity? Nothing short of an American nationalism that is more compelling than racial and ethnic particularisms seems capable of providing the sense of community that can inspire a new politics of economic and social equality.
James K. Galbraith has sketched out the political economy of an egalitarian America. All that is lacking is an America.