Joe Biden has clinched the White House—something that a large number of Americans find worthy of celebration. But while there is something cathartic about the thought of putting the Trump era behind us, what stands before us should quickly extinguish that sigh of relief.
To borrow an expression from Chris Hedges, America is a “decaying empire.” Indeed, many have documented the proliferation of numerous troubling social trends during the Trump era, including the spread of conspiracy theories, hyper nationalism, the crumbling of democratic norms and institutions, heightened racial tensions, declining life expectancy, police brutality, an opioid crisis etc. It is therefore unsurprising that the country is gripped by a despondent sensation that the social fabric is close to tearing completely. In some quarters, there is hope that with a new occupant in the White House, we just might turn the corner. Unfortunately, a careful consideration of the social dynamics that have brought the nation to its present state reveals why a Biden presidency offers little reason to expect a brighter future.
Society as an Organism
The human body is a collection of over thirty-seven trillion interdependent cells that perform certain tasks to maintain homeostasis—the state of optimal functioning indicative of overall good health. Diseases that disrupt the ability of cells to maintain homeostasis lead to poor health. Cancer, for example, is a condition in which damaged DNA results in mutated cells that pathologically “invade and destroy surrounding healthy tissue, including organs” rendering the body unable to complete its necessary, life-sustaining activities.
In the ancient world, it was common to conceive of society as a giant organism: the body politic. Its people are akin to the cells of the body—both keep the larger organism going by performing their assigned tasks. Institutions are analogized to organs, with the leader as the brain. This narrative has been used to justify hierarchical political arrangements in works ranging from the Hindu Rig Veda to Plato’s Republic.
In his Life of Coriolanus, Plutarch recounts a speech delivered by Roman senator Menenius Agrippa to the assembled plebeians on Mons Sacer, who had seceded over new taxes that would spell increased debts. Tasked by the patrician class to convince the plebeians to return to their jobs and military positions, Agrippa reminded the assembled plebs that society is made possible by the interdependent functioning of its many parts:
“It once happened,” [Agrippa] said, “that all the other members of a man mutinied against the stomach, which they accused as the only idle, uncontributing part the whole body, while the rest were put to hardships and the expense of much labour to supply and minister to its appetites. The stomach, however, merely ridiculed the silliness of the members, who appeared not to be aware that the stomach certainly does receive the general nourishment, but only to return it again, and redistribute it amongst the rest. Such is the case,” [Agrippa] said, “ye citizens, between you and the senate. The counsels and plans that are there duly digested, convey and secure to all of you your proper benefit and support.”
The plebeians failed to recognize that the appropriator of taxes, the Senate, played a vital role in feeding the institutions that kept Roman society healthy.
Social theorists have recognized that to analogize society to a body implies that a nation can suffer from disruptive diseases. By using what is often called the medical metaphor, these thinkers tried to distinguish “healthy and diseased states of political community.” This partly involved conceptualizing social problems as pathologies and modeling political solutions in terms of “surgery or pharmaceutical treatment.” Takashi Shogimen, for example, explains that,
The removal of criminals from society is typically compared with amputation of diseased members. In response to the question of whether it is legitimate to kill sinners, Thomas Aquinas maintained that killing is legitimate as long as such action serves the well-being of the whole community … To illustrate the point Aquinas employed the metaphor of amputation: “If … the well-being of the whole body demands the amputation of a limb, say in the case where one limb is gangrenous and threatens to infect the others, the treatment to be commended is amputation.”
As Mark Neocleous writes, “the analogy of the body politic was one of the most basic and fundamental of pre-modern thought … virtually all political thinkers used it.” That appears to no longer be the case. Perhaps this is, in part, because of the employment of the body politic metaphor by nefarious actors throughout history to advance horrible social projects. Dangerous regimes like the Third Reich, have often relied on xenophobic imagery, describing foreigners or outsiders as germs that infect the health of the nation.
Inequality as a Social Pathology
But the body politic metaphor has obtained new explanatory power in modern social science research. Nowhere is this more evident than in understanding inequality.
Research by social psychologists, sociologists and epidemiologists has confirmed that inequality is a disease that compromises the health of the body politic, producing extremely dangerous social symptoms. Some argue that the real problem is that the poor lack the resources to satisfy their basic needs and we need only eliminate poverty. But this would do little to solve the problems that result from the unequal distribution of resources itself—problems that would remain even if everyone were brought slightly over the poverty line.
Social scientists have discovered that feeling poor impacts us in the same ways as being poor. The evolutionary history of our species has instilled in us both a subconscious disposition to make rapid comparative social judgements and a profound desire for social status. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others (whether we know it or not), and the conclusions we draw have a measurable impact. fMRI studies reveal that parts of the brain that process emotional pain are active when we sense that our social status is comparatively low, and the reward center lights up when we sense that it is comparatively high.
In a more unequal world, our propensity to compare ourselves with others leaves us feeling ashamed at our lesser status with greater frequency. This has a deeply perverse effect on our psychology, as it triggers many of the detrimental habits associated with poverty itself. As social psychologist Keith Payne puts it, “Inequality makes people feel poor and act poor, even when they’re not.” According to Keith,
We have to take subjective perceptions of status seriously, because they reveal so much about people’s fates. If you place yourself on a lower rung, then you are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and chronic pain … the more probable it is that you will make bad decisions and underperform at work … the more likely you are to believe in the supernatural and in conspiracy theories … the more prone you are to weight issues, diabetes and heart problems … the fewer years you have left to live.
Heightened social inequality results in widespread subjective poverty, which ultimately exacerbates anti-social behaviors. In this sense, inequality impacts the body politic much like a disease: causing malignant tendencies in people, just as damage to DNA is associated with cancerous tendencies in cells. The accumulation of those pathological tendencies leads to disorder and destruction.
Social epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson demonstrate this with great clarity in their 2010 book The Spirit Level. The authors show that, among wealthy, developed nations, social problems increase with income inequality—and per capita income has no effect on this. Inequality negatively affects levels of trust, mental illness, life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children’s educational performance, teenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates and social mobility:
Health and social problems are indeed more common in countries with bigger income inequalities. The two are extraordinarily closely related—chance alone would almost never produce a scatter in which countries lined up like this.
Wilkinson and Picket note that “greater inequality seems to heighten people’s social evaluation anxieties by increasing the importance of social status.” In other words, as the social distance between people grows, the importance of being at the upper end of the scale intensifies, and this results in a high stakes status competition, which is liable to produce serious feelings of shame and humiliation for those at the bottom. To use their powerful expression, “inequality gets under the skin”. And of course, increased social anxiety causes numerous mental and physical health problems, too. To quote Payne:
Inequality affects our actions and our feelings in the same systematic, predictable fashion again and again. It makes us shortsighted and prone to risky behavior, willing to sacrifice a secure future for immediate gratification. It makes us more inclined to make self-defeating decisions. It makes us believe weird things, superstitiously clinging to the world as we want it to be rather than as it is. Inequality divides us, cleaving us into camps not only of income but also of ideology and race, eroding our trust in one another. It generates stress and makes us all less healthy and less happy.
The Medicine of Equality
When social inequality is widely experienced, its effects are greatly amplified. If one person is less trusting, believes in conspiracies, harbors racist views, abuses alcohol and drugs, etc., that is unfortunate, but it won’t create a rift in the social order. If, however, everyone is increasingly subject to such tendencies, the consequences are much more severe.
The presence of a cancerous tumor can be managed by the body for a period, but eventually the mutated cells overwhelm the immune system and wreak havoc on critical organs. If the tumor of inequality is not dealt with, the social order will eventually collapse.
The Gini index is a tool for measuring income or wealth distributions. A Gini score of 1.0 indicates perfect inequality (one person owns everything) and a score of 0.0 represents perfect equality (all the income or wealth is equally shared). Our Gini score before and after tax and transfers shows how unequal the United States is compared to our peer nations and how little redistribution the country accomplishes.
Is there any hope that President elect Joe Biden will be able to move the needle of inequality downward? If we are to believe that he will execute exactly what is written on his website, then, perhaps. But how credible is that? Biden has been a staple in Washington for over forty years. He has been consistently committed to promoting the interests of wealthy donors. He didn’t get the moniker of Senator from MBNA for nothing. During his eight years in the Obama Administration, income inequality rose slightly. I have little faith that his administration will provide the antidote to that which ails the nation.