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Why “Equal Opportunity” is Not What It Seems

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Why “Equal Opportunity” is Not What It Seems

By Dennis Loo (2/15/13)

Obama made “equal opportunity” the central theme of his 2013 State of the Union Address. Decrying what has happened and is happening to the “middle class” in America, Obama seeks to restore peoples' crumbling faith in the American Dream. This is what his presidency represents in its essence: a gambit by the 1% to put front and center a new face that appears to be one of us, but whose policies are a further advance for the Empire’s interests, further jeopardizing the people and planet’s very survival.

“Middle Class,” by the way, is the American euphemism for both the middle strata and the working class since “working class” is a term that both Democrats and Republicans dare not utter or even much grasp the meaning of. Everyone in America, according to acceptable public discourse, is middle-class. In the social sciences we would call using a term in this way meaningless since it includes all too diverse a grouping. When millionaires and people struggling on less than $15,000/year are in the same social class, you have to wonder about the usefulness of such a category.

In any case, I want to very briefly probe the meaning of the call for “equal opportunity.”

By raising the banner of “equal opportunity,” Obama hopes to draw most of us, especially those who recoil from the GOP’s overtly reactionary stands, into re-affirming their belief in the American Dream.

According to the American Dream, everyone, if they try hard enough, long enough, and skillfully enough, can achieve material wealth, usually translated concretely into owning a home and having enough or more than enough to satisfy any of one’s consumption desires. Being materially rich – that’s the American Way. All you have to do is play one game of the most popular board game in America, Monopoly, and you can see this.

Obama knows that the Republican majority in the House alone would stymie any efforts, sincere or otherwise, to raise the minimum wage to $9/hour and that to engage in this rhetoric is a cost-free way to look good while knowing that you will not have to actually deliver on it. This speech is a perfect example of what Obama is surpassingly good at doing: making it appear that he is on the side of the oppressed while reassuring those who really run things that he won’t do anything to threaten their power by, among other things, his staking out a position that is not actually a danger to the existing balance of power.

Why is “equal opportunity” not a wonderful demand that people can get behind?

Let us assume, for the benefit of those who raise the banner of equal opportunity, that equal opportunity was actually achieved and that all the extant barriers that hold some groups back such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, were eliminated entirely. Let us assume, in other words, that Obama’s rallying cry was completely implemented, as far-fetched as that seems, by the end of next week.

What would America look like?

The first thing to note here is that “equal opportunity” is not a call to have equal outcomes. Equal opportunity merely means that everyone should have an equal chance at becoming rich. Equal opportunity does not promise equality. Indeed, it could not promise equality because for it to operate it presumes inequality of outcomes.

As I point out in Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

In order for the American Dream to work, there must be a very large disparity between those who strike it rich and those who do not; if the gap between rich and poor is not big, then there is little incentive to try to become rich. Thus, the American Dream and the Horatio Alger myth require inequality, and in large amounts. As Robert Merton. who first pointed out this contradiction, observed, the American Dream is criminogenic—that is, it promotes more crime; this is because most people cannot achieve the American Dream of wealth legally, and some of them (at the very least) resort to illegal activities and deception to realize their dreams of material riches. (Pp. 336-227)

In other words, one of the outcomes of the American Dream as an organizing principle in your society is lots and lots of crime: pervasive crime is the underside of the American Dream, crime committed both by the rich and powerful and by their low budget equivalents in the lower strata.

Another of the outcomes of the American Dreams is the continued existence of wide disparities between the rich and the poor. If the disparities are not sufficiently large, then the American Dream loses its ability to motivate people: you do not have to work that hard or strive so hard according to its logic if there is not a big gap between the “winners” and the “losers.”

The purveyors of equal opportunity are proponents of sociologist Emile Durkheim’s functionalist perspective.

Again from Globalization and the Demolition of Society:

Functionalist theory assumes that societies require a hierarchy for their overall welfare. The people who occupy leading and disproportionately-rewarded positions do so because they perform exceptionally important functions and they are particularly worthy due to their skills; to get them to fill these crucial posts they must be disproportionately rewarded; others who are less talented cannot fill the elites’ shoes and therefore occupy the less well-rewarded positions; if people are doing what they are most suited for, then the whole society benefits.

This argument seems plausible, but functionalists conflate several different factors in justifying social inequality. To begin with, they equate incentive with material rewards. While people obviously differ in their abilities, the people who assume leadership posts do not necessarily have to be materially rewarded more substantially for what they do. Teachers, for example, carry out exceedingly important tasks for a society, as do parents, yet they are not well compensated. They do what they do for reasons other than the material rewards. The American dictum that implicitly celebrates moneymaking, “Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach teachers,” overlooks the fact that if everyone avoided teaching because they were all so good at other jobs, there would be no one to teach the young and the untrained. Would all children and teens be autodidacts then? Is not outstanding teaching one of the critical skills in any society at any time in human history? How does the accumulated knowledge and experience over millennia get passed along otherwise? Is everyone who home schools their children the best teacher for all subjects? Where do these home school parents get the materials such as books for their children to read if not from people who are writing books in order to teach?

While everyone needs to be motivated to work and to excel, the nature of the reward does not necessarily have to be material. A society that equates material rewards with success and that relies upon material success to motivate people is also saying—and must say—that success equals having things that others do not have. This turns society into a zero sum game of winners and losers and structurally encourages a sense of entitlement among the “winners” that they are better than the “losers” and that they merit goodies and respect that should not be granted to the less deserving hoi polloi. Is this the meaning of a good society: the leaders think of themselves as so much better than everyone else? Because there is only a finite amount of monetary and material incentives to go around, more for a few people means less for most others. Moreover, if the incentive must always be external to the job or activity itself, then something is wrong with the work or activity; what makes it not rewarding intrinsically? Perhaps the activity needs to be changed so that those who do it gain satisfaction from the act of doing it. Not all jobs are amenable to that change, which is why the less desirable activities such as cleaning up need to be shared.

I work at a university in which teaching is valued more highly than research. At Research 1 (R-1) universities, the opposite is true; at R-1 institutions, a great deal of friction typically exists among faculty within the same discipline because they are competing for slices of a finite pie for their research, another zero sum game. At non-R-1 universities, being a good teacher is something everyone can achieve; it is not a zero sum game. Consequently, relations among faculty members at teaching-focused universities are characteristically far more collegial.

Material rewards as the incentive means that social solidarity, what functionalists value more than anything else, is actually undermined by the structure’s inherent logic that people participate in a zero sum game in which many must be deprived so that a few may benefit a great deal. Rewarding people with non-material incentives, on the other hand, does not function as a zero sum game if what is being honored is cooperation and dedication to the group. Physicians in the US customarily make much more than the average worker. People will commonly cite doctors’ expertise and the importance of what they do as the reason for this inequity. In countries outside of the US, physicians perform equally important work for their patients but are not paid nearly as much. Is this because people in the US need more incentive to become physicians? Is it because physicians outside of the US are not valued as much as within the US?

If we stopped paying brain surgeons as much as they now earn, would that mean that everyone now performing brain surgery would put down their scalpels and say: “Well, I’m not doing this any more.” Would the people who are paid well now and/or honored for their work refuse to do their jobs if they were paid less? If outlandish salaries were no longer paid to TV network anchors (such as the $20 million per year that CBS pays Katie Couric) and if CBS, for example, paid their anchorperson, say $200,000 per year, would this mean that they would not be able to find a good person to anchor their nightly news broadcast? I should imagine that there are some people for whom the reward of fame, exposure, influence or service to the society would mean that they would be willing to do the job for a relative pittance in dollars.

Not that CBS would have to do this, but the point here is obvious.[1] These jobs would continue to be done because the monetary compensation is not the only reason why people do such jobs. (The President of the United States makes $400,000 a year. Do people run for the presidency because of the material incentives? Are we not getting the best people for the job because we are not offering more money for them? If we had paid a higher salary to the person who was president from 2001-08, would we have gotten someone better?). Certain jobs such as prostitution would disappear, if people having sex under hazardous conditions with strangers were not getting paid lots of money and better alternatives were available for prostitutes. Indeed, the nature of virtually all working class jobs would have to be transformed.

Functionalists believe that societies function best when they operate as a meritocracy, where those who have the most merit fill the most desirable positions. If a society rewards people materially and disproportionately as the social incentive, then the capital, both literal and social, that accrues to those who are most highly rewarded rebounds to their offspring, relations, and friends who are not necessarily more meritorious. These others get the benefit of their connection to the highly paid by virtue, in the case of the children, of having chosen their parents well.

Durkheim believed that it was necessary to reduce the barriers as much as possible and provide people with as much equality of opportunity as possible.[2] But if a hierarchical society is governed by those who already have the most and if the norm for that society is that material wealth is the measure of success, then it can only be expected that those in high positions would work to preserve the advantages (both for themselves and for those they favor, such as their relatives and friends) against those who do not have their connections, even if the others are more meritorious. The net result of this is that the most meritorious often do not rise to the positions that they should. The whole society suffers as a result. This contradicts the key stated principle of functionalism—the welfare of the whole society.

Even if a perfect meritocracy were possible, the results would still be problematic because the disparities it would generate would over time confer advantages and inequities by family and class and by other invidious criteria such as gender, race/ethnicity, regional advantages, or sexual orientation. In other words, even if Durkheim were granted even more than he wished and all of the barriers to equal opportunity were eliminated, the gaps between the people would widen due to the practice of materially rewarding the most meritorious; this would create a class that reproduced its advantages for its family members and friends within two generations, undercutting the meritocracy and thereby sabotaging the putatively core values of the general welfare and solidarity.

I am reminded, when thinking of the functionalists’ celebration of the allegedly non-antagonistic relations among all of the society’s classes, of the Disney movie The Lion King’s opening scene. The newborn male lion Simba’s proud parents hold him up while standing on a cliff overlooking the wide African plain. Arrayed in concentric circles on that plain are all of the animals of the kingdom—giraffes, water buffalo, gazelles, and so on—bowing down before the new lion king. “The Great Circle of Life,” the film’s thematic score, rises in this grand happy scene in which the prey of lions celebrate the newest member to join the ranks of their predators, who will one day happily eat them.[3] (Pp. 313-317)

For the American public, the lions are those in the Democratic Party leadership. They hope to get us to cheer them on and pay obeisance to them as our lords and masters even as we are the prey that they feast upon, eating us raw, to keep them going and keep them in charge of the kingdom. (The Republican Party, for its part, is akin to Simba’s uncle.)

The demand by the people cannot be to adopt the banner of “equal opportunity” but to demand that we have a society not governed by capitalism’s pursuit of the almighty dollar. To safeguard the earth and all of its denizens the banner of revolution must be raised. Anything less than this is at best misleading and harmful and at worst, a cynical ploy to enlist people in crimes against humanity.

Those who insist on raising the cry for “equal opportunity,” consciously or not as the case may be, are really at the very best calling for the elevating of a larger number of faces from among the historically subordinated groups of females, people of color, immigrants, workers, and homosexuals, to find their place at the top or nearer the top of the social hierarchy. The demand for “equal opportunity” does not call for ending the invidious distinctions and the wide inequalities among the people. Instead it means the reinforcing of those divisions, particularly under conditions of globalized capital and global exploitation, and merely changing the proportion of what those in the higher ranks look like.



[1] Major corporations like CBS are also paying their front people such as Couric for other factors such as being able to project a credible image and for protecting the major players without having to be told directly how to do this. On a purely financial basis, hiring Couric has not paid off for CBS because since she assumed the anchor position, CBS’s nightly news program has lost audience share.

[2] “[The division of labor] not only supposes that individuals are not consigned forcibly to performing certain determined functions, but also that no obstacle whatsoever prevents them from occupying within the ranks of society a position commensurate to their abilities. In short, labour only divides up spontaneously if society is constituted in such a way that social inequalities express precisely natural inequalities.” Emile Durkheim, “The Division of Labor in Society,” in Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, ed. Ian McIntosh (New York: New York University Press, 1997), 204.

[3] To avoid making this truth apparent, the movie depicts Simba during his exile as eating bugs—a decidedly non-leonine activity—instead of feasting upon his animal companions.

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