As students, we are educated, attentive and informed, and as we become globally aware many of us are becoming more and more concerned about the myriad of problems plaguing our society. Upon graduating from college, we’ll enter into a “real world” beset by a failing economy, drastic inequality, and vast social and environmental problems. Political leaders and popular culture have thus far failed to solve the pressing issues of the day. Perhaps the time has come for us to radically reassess our social, political, and economic systems, and to fundamentally change the direction in which our nation is heading. Alternative academic leaders of the past and present have offered up social and economic critiques of current dominant forces that are inexorably linked: private property, capitalism, and consumerism.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau examined the origins of inequality and identified private ownership of property as the exclusive force that magnified inequality. He wrote that private ownership exacerbates the small, innate inequalities between people by its ability to compound differences through possession. Karl Marx integrated capitalism into the argument, showing that it leads to the exploitation of the working and professional class, and an inevitable separation of wealth in society. Marx concludes that democratic common control over society’s resources and modes of production would prioritize the interests of public over those of the few.
The critique is expanding to this day. Donald Worster, KU professor and a leader in the field of environmental history, studies the interaction of a society’s economic and cultural values with its environment. In his book “Dust Bowl,” he demonstrates that the urgings of the prevailing economic culture, such as indefinite expansion, individualism, and self-aggrandizement, clash with the community and nation-wide interests, and the limited resources available.
Certainly, we can see that private ownership has compounded wealth in the hands of the few. Data collected by the Federal Reserve and Department of Treasury in 2001, [show] that about the top 20 percent of the population owned 84 percent of the nation’s wealth, leaving the other 80 percent of the population with a scant 16 percent. The minority of the opulent have the means necessary to control public policy, but their interests will not likely coincide with interests of the majority.
In addition, we’ve witnessed the many social and environmental problems that capitalism creates on the fringes of its crude calculations. So-called “externalities”, the factors that do not affect the bargaining parties in a transaction, actually affect the many less fortunate that surround them.
The status quo no longer satisfies the needs of the majority of us. A more equitable solution presents itself: the democratization of our resources, so that decisions are no longer made in the exclusive interests of the shareholders or the stockholders, but rather the stakeholders: the community. If we really want our generation to be successful we must stop accepting short-term solutions, and look towards drastic social changes that challenge our values. We shouldn’t feel constrained to the thinking of our parent’s generation; and we must remember that just because things are doesn’t mean that’s how they should be. We must define our own generation.