inequality and alienation in society

by Sebastian Benthall

While helpful for me, this blog post got out of hand. A few core ideas from it:

A prerequisite for being a state is being a stable state. (cf. Bourgine and Varella on autonomy)

A state may be stable (“power stable”) without being legitimate (“inherently stable” or “moral stable”).

State and society are intertwined and I’ll just conflate them here.

Under liberal ideology, society is society of individual producers and the purpose of the state is to guarantee “liberty, property, and equality.”

So specifically, (e.g. economic) inequality is a source of moral instability for liberalism.

Whether or not moral instability leads to destabilization of the state is a matter of empirical prediction. Using that as a way of justifying liberalism in the first place is probably a non-starter.

A different but related problem is the problem of alienation. Alienation happens when people don’t feel like they are part of the institutions that have power over them.

[Hegel’s philosophy is a good intellectual starting point for understanding alienation because Hegel’s logic was explicitly mereological, meaning about the relationship between parts and wholes.]

Liberal ideology effectively denies that individuals are part of society and therefore relies on equality for its moral stability.

But there are some reasons to think that this is untenable:

As society scales up, we require more and more apparatus to manage the complexity of societal integration. This is where power lies, and it creates a ruling bureaucratic or (now, increasingly) technical class. In other words, it may be impossible to for society to both be scalable and equal, in terms of distribution of goods.

Moreover, the more “technical” the apparatus of social integration is, the more remote it is from the lived experiences of society. As a result, we see more alienation in society. One way to think about alienation is inequality in the distribution of power or autonomy. So popular misgivings about how control has been ceded to algorithms are an articulation of alienation, though that word is out of fashion.

Inequality is a source of moral instability under liberal ideology. Under what conditions is alienation a source of moral stability?