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Benjamin R. Barber Headshot

"Occupy Rousseau" and Challenge Inequality in America

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300 years ago, a watchmaker in Geneva, Switzerland, fathered a son who became the first powerful voice against inequality in an urbanizing Europe in which the costs of capitalism and private property were already clear. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed in his Social Contract that men, though born free, were everywhere in chains. In time, he became an inspiration to the French revolutionaries.

Astonishingly, three centuries later, inequality continues to dog capitalism and taint democracy's legitimacy -- worse now even than back then. Equality and equality's advocates continue to take a beating in an America whose democracy counts dollars rather than votes, and in which the disparities between rich and middle and middle and poor deepen day by day. Take, for example, these harsh realities:
  • Congressman Dennis Kucinich, one of equality's last great champions, lost his seat on Super Tuesday, his district eliminated in a move that set two liberals against each other in the primary;
  • American Latinos and African-Americans, their wealth mainly invested in their homes, have lost 65% or more of their net worth during the housing crisis;
  • Social mobility, the historical remedy to America's inequality problems (you may be poor, but you can move up the economic ladder), is freezing up, with more than a few of those European countries labeled "socialist" here ahead of us on the upward mobility list;
  • Mega-billionaires like Home Depot founder Ken Langone and Warren Buffet say they would gladly pay higher taxes, but tax increases have become a taboo subject for Democrats and Republicans alike;
  • One of four American children live under the poverty line;
  • While congresspersons are being elected with the help of big bucks, 300 ex-congresspersons work as full-time lobbyists.
What would Rousseau say to all this? Hypocritical advocates of democracy "throw garlands of flowers over our chains," is what he said. "The first source of evil is inequality," is what he wrote. "The words liberty and empire are incompatible," is what he believed. "Great needs spring from great wealth," is what he insisted on. To the protesters at Occupy Wall Street he would recall that democracy's a "law we give to ourselves" that requires participation and direct engagement in the making of a common will.

If we care about democracy, it is time to "occupy Rousseau," take his deep critique of property and empire and representative institutions seriously. That is what we will be doing tonight, Friday, March 9th at the New York Public Library in New York at 7:00 PM when I will ask scholars like Simon Schama, Guillaume Chenevière, and Nannerl Keohane and politicians like former Governors Eliot Spitzer and Thomas Kean and former Swiss President Pascal Couchepin, and journalist Laura Flanders as well as Schomburg Center director Khalil Gibran Mohammad and OWS veteran Amin Husain to help bring Rousseau to Zuccotti and allow him to help us expose inequality and address the peril in which it is putting our nation. If you want to participate, visit LIVE at the NYPL and grab a ticket, and OCCUPY ROUSSEAU with us!