At a recent Brooklyn town hall focused on education, the Congressperson for New York’s 14th district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was talking about how her father had worked hard and even taken some risks in traveling to and from the South Bronx on a then dangerous subway to attend Brooklyn Tech in the 1970s. An admissions test was required to get into the school, which is one of NYC’s most academically prestigious, and he always told his daughter that being a student there had greatly increased his prospects in life.
“My question,” Ocasio-Cortez asked after telling the story, “is why are there only five – or a handful – of schools in New York City that are seen to give us this life? …And my question is, why isn’t every school in New York City a Brooklyn Tech caliber school?”
Soon after saying this, the Congresswoman was interrupted by a heckler whose words are difficult to make out in recordings of the event. Her response to him was to say that she was there to listen to everyone’s concerns, but that the heckler’s words showed a “scarcity mindset” in the sense that ordinary citizens (and obviously their children) are expected to compete for a few spots in high performing public schools rather than working to ensure that the same quality of education is available to all.
Unmentioned by AOC, there’s also the fact that the wealthy can ensure an advantage for their kids by paying for a private education with all perks, spoken and unspoken, that this usually entails.
As if to demonstrate the divide pointed out by Representative Ocasio-Cortez, during the same week, dozens of people were charged with mail and wire fraud for allegedly cheating the college admissions systems of high performing universities throughout the country.
The accused are alleged to have done this with the help of William Singer, the owner/operator of the Edge College and Career Network LLC, a university counseling and preparation business, who was himself charged with numerous even more serious counts, including racketeering conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy.
The latter charges come from his alleged use of his non-profit Key Worldwide Foundation to facilitate bribes. Perhaps the most shocking charges are against coaches at some of these colleges, who are said to have accepted pay-offs to create paperwork showing that the young people were on teams they didn’t participate in during their studies at high performing schools like Georgetown and the University of Southern California.
Although the media concentrated most of its focus on the Hollywood stars implicated, a press release from the U.S. Department of Justice explaining the charges tells a somewhat different, and more troubling, story.
Those involved were from diverse fields, including the CEO of a real estate company, the owner of some wine vineyards and a senior executive at a global equity firm. The one thing they all seem to have in common is money and a willingness to cheat to get their children into elite universities that already turn down so many gifted students as a result of an even greater scarcity of spaces than exists in New York’s elite citywide public high schools.
While it can be argued that the charges show that the justice system is working, if slowly, to ensure equal access to the best institutions of higher learning (and, predictably, the right also took the opportunity to claim that diversity quotas are the ‘real problem’), the sheer length and scope of the enterprise leads one to believe that similar conspiracies could be launched in the future or even still be ongoing.
The charges also opened the floodgates to a wider discussion about inequalities in education that put the lie to the idea that the United States is a meritocracy. Take the example of so-called legacy admissions, where the children and sometimes grandchildren of alumni are given automatic admissions to some of the nation’s best schools. This was how former president George W. Bush, a self confessed C student, went to Yale.
The major difference here appears to be that legacies were used to keep traditional elites, like the Bushes or Vanderbilts, at the top of the social pyramid, while those involved in the current scandal seem have more recently acquired their fortunes and don’t have this built in advantage. It seems that even at the very top of America’s wealth hierarchy, the scarcity mentality is entrenched as well.
The inequality revealed by the investigation and charges are indicative of a wider problem, with other notable examples being access to health and social care, with worse outcomes almost inevitable the further one goes down the economic ladder.
This begs a question, is this type of inequality unique to America’s laissez faire economic culture, where working people, especially in traditionally marginalized communities, are pitted against each other for their share of a seemingly shrinking pie?
While it’s true that the United States has always seemed to value personal liberty above all else, and the divide between rich and poor may seem wider there, inequality is intensifying in most western democracies, including here in Canada. The rising strength of far right populism in most western democracies, which appear so prosperous on paper, seems to be one of the difficult to predict consequences of this phenomenon.
Of the three major republican revolutions of the late 18th century, the ones that had the idea of equality between citizens rather than those with property most at their core were the later ones in France and Haiti. Considering this, it’s interesting that since the end of last year a massive movement has erupted in the former that has wider issues of inequality at its heart.
Although the main symbol of the French movement has been taken up by right wing populists in Canada, the U.K. and elsewhere, it’s much more interesting as a whole than these bandwagon jumpers are. To understand the ‘yellow vest’ or ‘gilets jaunes’ movement, it’s important to understand it as author Christophe Guilluy has put it, as a revolt of “peripheral France”, the areas outside of the countries major cities, which, due to gentrification, are increasingly inhabited mainly by the wealthy.
As Guilluy explained a short time ago in the U.K. Guardian, “It is in this France peripherique that the gilets jeunes movement was born. It is also in these peripheral regions that the western populist wave has its source. Peripheral America brought Trump to the White House. Peripheral Italy – mezzogiorno, rural areas and small northern industrial towns – is the source of its populist wave. This protest is carried out by the classes who in days gone by, were once the key reference point for a political and intellectual world that has forgotten them.”
The movement has played out unedited and in real time through live streams, unfolding in a series of weekly ‘Acts’ in the country’s cities and roadways, beginning with the first on Saturday, November 17th last year. What began as a protest, mainly by the same kind of rightwing populists who have taken up its symbols elsewhere, against fuel taxes and lowering the speed limit on some highways (vital issues for those commuting to nearby cities for work), as it grew, its demands evolved and have drawn from ideas usually associated with the left..
As reported by Jeremy Harding in the London Review of Books, a list of ‘People’s Directives’ to the Macron government (not accepted by all of those who consider themselves gilets jeunes as we might expect with a leaderless movement) goes well beyond the fuel tax that the French President has already caved on.
As Harding explains them, “The People’s Directives were short on ideas about revenue for the Treasury, but long on wealth redistribution, protecting French industry, caring for the elderly, bolstering the minimum wage and the minimum pension, and capping monthly salaries at 15,000 Euros: the earnings gap touches a raw nerve with the gilets jaunes.”
Whether in France or the even more deeply divided U.S., where just 3 people have more wealth than the bottom 50%, deepening inequality has already helped the rise of an authoritarian right-wing populism. The often demagogic leaders of these movements usually stoke resentment against marginalized communities, especially immigrants, who suffer even more from the very same inequalities inherent in the neoliberal economic model that currently rules most of the western world.
The only solution, both to alleviating the underlying problem of inequality and countering the energized far right it has produced in so many places appears to be for the left to counter it with a more positive populism of its own. Leaders like AOC, Jeremy Corbyn and in the anonymous gilets jaunes who compiled the People’s Directives are beginning to show us the way.