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The Social Contract in a Dignitarian Society

Message Robert Fuller
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by Berrett-Koehler, 2006

This is the eighth part of the serialization of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Berrett-Koehler, 2006). The ideas in this book are further developed in my recent novel The Rowan Tree.


Poverty is the new slavery.
--Reverend Jim Wallis, God's Politics

The exclusion of one group of people or another has been the rule through most of history. Men without property could be denied the vote in revolutionary America. Quotas were placed on Jews in many universities and professions until the mid-twentieth century. Women were denied the vote in many countries well into the last century, and still are in some. Likewise, the segregation of African Americans was widely sanctioned in the United States until the 1960s. At one time or another, most societies have rationalized relegating certain subgroups to second-class citizenship.

Institutional Rankism and a Permanent Underclass

As racism disadvantaged blacks and sexism restricted women, so rankism marginalizes the working poor, keeping them in their place while their low salaries effectively make goods and services available to society at subsidized prices. This process, whereby the most indigent Americans have become the benefactors of those better off, is vividly described by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Nickel and Dimed. In The Working Poor: Invisible in America, author David Shipler depicts the less fortunate as disappearing into a "black hole" from which there is no exit. As class membranes become ever less permeable, resignation, cynicism, and hostility mount.

Exposing the institutional rankism that consigns millions to an underclass is a Herculean political task, but the theoretical groundwork is already being laid. In addition to the volumes already mentioned, there is Shortchanged: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy, by Howard Karger, which shows how the working poor and also many in the middle class become mired in a netherworld of high interest rates and ever-mounting debt. Except for the absence of debtors' prisons today, their situation is redolent of nineteenth-century Dickensian England.

Some marginalized groups have managed to end their exclusion and win for themselves a measure of social justice. But many are still trapped in Nobodyland--often less because they bear traits that in the past were used to sanction discrimination than that they are mired in poverty.

How can a dignity movement aimed at overcoming rankism provide a way out for the underclass?

The Myth of Meritocracy

The rank-based strategy of the movement to equalize dignity stands in sharp contrast to the class-based Marxist strategy committed to equalizing wealth. As practiced, communism created a rankist elite that usurped riches and power for itself. In contrast, a dignitarian society aims to eliminate the "dignity gaps" created and perpetuated by rankism. Today the working poor are typically devoid of savings and utterly dependent on regular weekly wages. A medical emergency, the loss of a job, even a car repair can force them--including many in the middle class--into an untenable level of credit card debt or even homelessness.

Increasingly, low social rank, or class, poses an all but impassable barrier to social mobility. Accepting such an arrangement is tantamount to giving up on democracy's promise of liberty and justice for all. To the extent that social mobility is a myth, so is meritocracy.

One does not need as much money or as high an income as one's neighbors or co-workers to live a life of dignity. But one must be free to compete on equal terms with those who currently hold higher rank. To vie for rank on a level playing field and lose is neither cause for, nor is it experienced as, indignity. But to be denied even the chance to do so is a preemptory form of exclusion. Few, if any, meritocracies, though they offer more social mobility than the aristocracies of past centuries, qualify as dignitarian.

People who have money know that it's the foundation on which their personal freedom rests. Even modest savings allow them to leave a job that ill suits them, opt out of a bad school, or see a dentist or doctor. While a dignitarian society would not compensate everyone equally, everyone would be paid enough to afford such choices.

Where would the money come from? The price increases that paying a living wage to all would necessitate would ultimately be borne by consumers, who, of course, include the working poor themselves. But under the present system, their under-compensated labor functions as a hidden subsidy to everyone. As long as a majority of voters are comfortable with that, it will continue. But when awareness dawns that "poverty is the new slavery," growing numbers of people are likely to become intolerant of this situation.

I was surprised when, in 1971, a student at Oberlin College petitioned the investment committee of the school's board of trustees to divest itself of its stock in companies that operated in apartheid South Africa. But within a few years, a worldwide divestiture movement was putting pressure on that country to abandon its policy of apartheid.

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