U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Common Ruin of the Contending Classes: On David Huyssen’s Progressive Inequality

It is often forgotten that, almost at the very beginning of the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels envision two possible outcomes of any given class struggle, contrary to the charge of teleology that Marxism has for so long been unable to shake:

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Whether or not Marx and Engels’s non-teleological acknowledgment of multiple possible outcomes here is canceled by the much more famous line further on in the Manifesto about the bourgeoisie producing its own grave-diggers is a matter of some debate, and depends on whether you assume that the relationship intrinsic to the sentence that follows—“Its [the bourgeoisie’s] fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”—is straightforwardly causal or merely correlative.

I think there’s an optative mood in these sentences that eludes the merely teleological, but what it comes down to, in fact, is how we parse “equally,” for the kernel of the idea of equality—or inequality—is precisely the ambiguity of causality and correlation. It is at least possible to imagine that “equally inevitable” does not mean that Marx envisioned the “victory of the proletariat” as the instantaneous fruit of the fall of the bourgeoisie: it is possible to imagine that Marx allowed for the possibility that “the common ruin of the contending classes” could be the immediate result of the fall of the bourgeoisie, followed by an eventual triumph of the proletariat due to causes additional, even unrelated to the fall of the bourgeoisie.

Those are rather dark thoughts for a Friday, I suppose, but the ambiguous nature of equality/inequality as it is embedded in historical thinking is on my mind after reading David Huyssen’s Progressive Inequality: Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920. Last week I wrote a little about this book in connection with Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism. Both, I argued, sought to revise the dominant historical judgment of the Progressive Era as the pendulum’s return swing away from what Vernon Parrington called the “Great Barbecue” of the Gilded Age. But I also noted that in a sense, Huyssen’s book was really two stories: one being this revisionist take on the Progressive Era, and the other a meditation on the challenges—especially the intellectual and conceptual challenges—of putting inequality at the center of historical research and writing.

Of course, in the wake of the surprise success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and in view of Piketty’s own disdain for the ahistorical nature of so much of mainstream economics,[1] Huyssen’s timing could not be better, especially as many of us contemplate how our current projects address this central problematic. While not so much focused on the compounding nature of wealth disparities, Progressive Inequality is a model demonstration of the way that inequality not only renews but compounds itself with every effort to disavow its reality. By pretending they could temporarily suspend their own class position whenever they wanted to be charitable, Huyssen argues, the well-to-do of fin-de-siècle New York further entrenched the class antagonism that heedless capitalist exploitation was already doing a fine job of stoking.

Huyssen’s book should not be read, however, as just one more salvo in an intellectual assault on the 1%. Not that there is the least doubt about the location and seriousness of Huyssen’s sympathies, but Huyssen rightly sees a historical study of inequality as more than a chronicle of, to borrow Gustavus Myers’s title, “the Great American Fortunes,” and also more than a record of immiseration, a revelation of the horrific conditions living and working conditions of those who were scraping by in the Progressive Era. These twin extremes, although addressed in the text and more amply in the footnotes, do not dominate Progressive Inequality, as doing so would destroy the intention of the book, revising its subtitle, “Rich and Poor in New York, 1890-1920” as “Rich or Poor in New York.”

Instead, Huyssen avoids that disjunctive “or” and keeps the reader riveted to dramas and encounters, to contact points. Progressive Inequality is a kind of borderlands history of the haves and the have-nots, the charity dispensers and the charitable “cases,” the employers and the employed. How, Huyssen continuously asks, did the basic fact of inequality produce contortions and miscommunications even in the midst of attempts to mitigate poverty, disease, and physical danger? Why did so many “well-meaning” efforts to address these things alienate both sides?

By keeping inequality, rather than one class or the other, at the center of his book, Huyssen asks us to see inequality as a terrain rather than an output, a question rather than a thesis—a difficult feat. Certainly the reception of Piketty’s book so far has not treated the idea of inequality with that kind of sophistication, and the brutally direct way that his book’s central equation, r > g, has been parsed—it’s either a death sentence for democracy or a fallacious scam targeting the rich, depending on whom you ask—bypasses questions about the lived experience embedded in that greater than symbol for an aerial view that all too easily allows the kind of self-erasures of one’s own class position that Huyssen catalogues relentlessly. It is very easy to “know” what inequality is when you never step outside the classless altruism of the White Savior Complex or the benevolent concern trolling so well captured by this article from The Onion. Knowing better is simply not the same as knowing inequality.

But of course, taking Huyssen’s path is therefore a political gamble as much as it is a methodological choice: to follow his cue is to believe that there is at least some efficacy in taking this middle symbol as our scholarly object—neither the opulence of the 1% nor the indigence of the 99%, but the daily collisions that bring them together and constantly recalibrate the terms of class identity and class struggle.

It is also, I think, a way to stave off teleology: as I noted above in discussing Marx, equality and inequality are such protean relationships, moving through a sort of curved space of causality and correlation that we as historians cannot simply guess at their trajectories. In a sense, the phrase “the common ruin of the contending classes” is a sort of encapsulation of that resistance to teleology: inequality ramifies, it metastasizes, it is not merely a force being exerted downward on one class or buoying another up. That, at least, is the lesson I took from Progressive Inequality, and I encourage you to read it.

[1] “To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage of being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything,” Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 42.

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  1. I should also point out that this post isn’t really a proper review of Progressive Inequality, but Gabe Winant’s review in Jacobin Magazine has you very well covered there. (And, in the interest of full disclosure, Gabe, David, and I are all active in GESO, the grad student union at Yale, although my involvement is basically negligible compared to Gabe’s and David’s organizing efforts.)

  2. Does H. talk about settlement houses? (My impression is that some good social-historical work has been done on them, for the U.S. and esp. the British side.) I wonder how Huyssen’s bk would read alongside, say, S. Koven’s Slumming (which I haven’t read, though I shd probably disclose that the author is an old friend/acquaintance).

  3. LFC,
    Absolutely. Jacob Schiff, Lilian Wald, and the Henry Street Settlement receive a very sympathetic treatment in Progressive Inequality. If I had had the space, one of the elements of the book which I really wanted to discuss, but which required more than a passing mention, was Huyssen’s discussion of the way that religious background continued to inflect approaches to charity even in the midst of ostensibly non-sectarian, “scientific” reform efforts. Huyssen regards the Jewish tradition of tzedakah that Schiff and Wald upheld as far more humane than the spirit guiding the Charity Organization Society of New York, which he argues followed an archaic moral vision dating back to medieval poor laws. Huyssen (convincingly, to me) points out that this latter approach to charity was originally designed explicitly to reinforce and validate social inegalitarianism–a funny way of going about alleviating poverty.

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