THE BLOG
12/28/2011 09:05 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2012

From Occupy to Progressive Renewal III: A Call to New Truths

Real equality of opportunities must be through equality of capabilities...to achieve valuable functioning.
--Amartya Sen

A Common Inheritance

As the party of freedom and collective well-being, progressives must not leave another generation to question the dream of a realized and empowered society. Acknowledging that genuine individualism and willing engagement emerge in nurturing communities, progressives must describe this community and how we bring it about.

The process to focus on is the investment that societies make in building personal, social, and moral capacity in their members. Social scientists use a misleading term for this investment: social capital. Social capital is characterized as the resources lodged by society within individuals that they draw upon to navigate social and institutional networks. On the model of physical capital, social capital can presumably be subdivided, appropriated, and spent on an individual basis. As in the free market paradigm, society benefits from these expenditures only as a side effect of each member's own activity.

Through this neat linguistic trick, the indivisible power of communities to nurture and shape their members is reduced to the sum of private and individual efforts. By failing to identify the outcome of these shared resources as a collective good, citizens are reduced to taking their designated share as a handout from the elites that control the resources rather than mobilizing to shape their utilization.

A new deep frame must identify social capital as a common inheritance. And since the power to use this capital is exercised through collective action, it can be used by the public to nurture the twin ends of vibrant individualism and a democratic common good.

Ten Unassailable Truths

To lay the groundwork for this frame, we must begin with a few simple - and uncontroversial - observations. Let us call them Ten Unassailable Truths:

 Check out the nearest nursery: humans are not fully formed at the beginning of life.
 Self-madeness is an illusion: the processes by which we are formed cannot be undertaken on our own. Being abandoned to one's own devices is not conducive to growth.
 Human life flourishes only when it is cared for, nourished, and sustained in a systematic way.
 Meaningful freedom requires the capacity to take advantage of the opportunities presented.
 In the complex late industrial society of our time, families cannot provide the resources necessary to utilize this capacity on their own. Nor can they fend off all the social forces impinging on the life chances of their members.
 A race is never a contest among the self-made but of the previously prepared. Even when appropriate, competition is only as fair as the fairness of the preparation provided the contestants. Presuming fair preparation simply stacks the outcomes in favor of those with better access to the collective birthright.
 Many of the most worthy human attributes do not flower in competition, but are rather distorted or submerged by such pressures. A healthy society is one that can distinguish when to promote competition and when to limit it.
 Since no one is self-made, a better measure of freedom than the starting point is the outcome, that is, the mature capacity for self-actualization. This measures how well individuals use the collective birthright provided to implement a sustainable set of life choices.
 Since the actualization of valued capacities requires both competitive and non-competitive opportunities, winning races cannot be the only measure of success to be rewarded or of access to the opportunity to thrive.
 Exceptions are just that: exceptions. A few successes displayed for having overcome the odds cannot be evidence that the system works, for every last system has some who do better.

If the measure of a good society is broad distribution of the capacity for shaping one's life, how can we abandon the young precisely at the time of their greatest helplessness and psychological vulnerability? Why do those who assert the virtues of unconstrained individualism, who insist it is unnecessary and wasteful to help citizens flourish, nevertheless provide their children every conceivable advantage? They know what we all know: children will not grow to their full potential by tending themselves any more than plants will survive without water.

What conservatives misconstrue as self-making is mastering the capacity to use resources during the years of development. The systematic lack of access to resources or capacity development during this period, studies now conclude, produces an early impairment of cognitive growth, health, and psychological stability. These impairments magnify the already severe deficits many children face in resources and access. Moreover, these early - and avoidable - deficiencies compromise later development and limit the capacity to utilize compensatory opportunities provided later.

Taking on the Opposition

Who among us thinks they can rustle up their own educational system, medical infrastructure, public amenities, and protection from environmental and consumer hazards? So why not state the obvious? The stale language of freedom-from-intervention promotes callous neglect and brutal indifference. Its proponents are gambling that the collapse of the public will mean a competitive advantage for themselves and their offspring. Starve the competition, they calculate, and let the race begin.

The demonstrated incompetence of the public to solve our problems, in New Orleans not to speak of financial markets, regulatory protection, war criminality, electoral breakdown, media fairness, and work safety, is part of the plan. The lesson is that we need caring corporations to get the job done led by our friend the Undercover Boss. This is a fiendishly clever takeover strategy by takeover experts.

Conservatives love the market because not least because its coercions and inequities are presumed natural. The constraining hand of corporate oligarchs poses no problem, for by the terms of the market all private power is defined as invisible. By rejecting any public role to regulate corporate dominance, and limiting government to the repressive national security state (which is acknowledged to exist), the right has free reign to siphon power to the top.

A new public world begins from the view that democratic society requires citizens who can lead engaged and empowered lives. It views every child as a budding citizen who must be stimulated to cultivate self-mastery and social capacity, and such citizens as the only barrier to death of the republic by social breakdown or elite control. It remains to fill in the progressive campaign to reclaim the public.

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