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Robert Reich

Throughout history, the central struggle of civilization has been against brutality by the powerful. Civil society doesn’t let might make right

‘Putin must be stopped. Trump must be held accountable. Rightwing politicians who encourage white Christian nationalism must be condemned and voted out of office.’

‘Putin must be stopped. Trump must be held accountable. Rightwing politicians who encourage white Christian nationalism must be condemned and voted out of office.’

Mon 9 May 2022 06.21 EDT

I keep running into people who feel overwhelmed by so many seemingly unrelated but terrifying things occurring all at once. “How can all this be happening?” they ask.

But these things are connected. They are reinforcing each other. As such, they pose a clear challenge to a decent society.

Putin invades Ukraine. Trump refuses to concede and promotes his big lie. Rightwing politicians in America and Europe inflame white Christian nationalism. Television pundits spur bigotry toward immigrants. Politicians target LGBTQ+ youth.

Powerful men sexually harass and abuse women. Abortion bans harm women unable to obtain safe abortions. Police kill innocent Black people with impunity.

CEOs rake in record profits and compensation but give workers meager wages and fire them for unionizing. The richest men in the world own the most influential media platforms. Billionaires make large campaign donations (read: legal bribes) so lawmakers won’t raise their taxes.

What connects these? All are abuses of power. All are occurring at a time when power and wealth are concentrated in few hands.

It is important to see the overall pattern because each of these sorts of abuses encourages other abuses. Stopping them – standing up against all forms of bullying and brutality – is essential to preserving a civil society.

Throughout history, the central struggle of civilization has been against brutality by the powerful. The state of nature is a continuous war in which only the fittest survive – where lives are “nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

Without norms, rules, and laws preventing the stronger from attacking or oppressing the weaker, none of us is safe. We all live in fear. Even the most powerful live in fear of being attacked or deposed.

Civilization is the opposite of a state of nature. A civil society doesn’t allow the strong to brutalize the weak. The responsibility of all who seek a decent society is to move as far from a state of nature as possible.

Certain inequalities of power are expected, even in a civil society. Some people are bigger and stronger than others. Some are quicker of mind and body. Some have more forceful personalities. Some have fewer scruples.

Some inequalities of income and wealth may be necessary to encourage hard work and inventiveness, from which everyone benefits.

But when inequalities become too wide, they invite abuses. Such abuses invite further abuses until society degenerates into a Hobbesian survival of the most powerful. An entire society – even the world – can descend into chaos.

Every time the stronger bully the weaker, the social fabric is tested. If bullying is not contained, the fabric unwinds.

Some posit a moral equivalence between those who seek social justice and those who want to protect individual liberty, between “left” and “right.”

But there is no moral equivalence between bullies and the bullied, between tyranny and democracy, between brutality and decency – no “balance” between social justice and individual liberty.

No individual can be free in a society devoid of justice. There can be no liberty where brutality reigns.

The struggle for social justice is the most basic struggle of all because it defines how far a civilization has come from a Hobbesian survival of the most powerful.

A civil society stops brutality, holds the powerful accountable, and protects the vulnerable.

Putin must be stopped. Trump must be held accountable. Rightwing politicians who encourage white Christian nationalism must be condemned and voted out of office. Celebrity pundits who fuel racism and xenophobia must be denounced and defunded.

Powerful men who sexually harass or abuse women must be prosecuted. Women must have safe means of ending pregnancies they don’t want. Police who kill innocent Black people must be brought to justice.

CEOs who treat their employees badly must be exposed and penalized. Billionaires who bribe lawmakers to cut their taxes or exempt them from regulations must be sanctioned, as should lawmakers who accept such bribes.

This is what civilization demands. This is what the struggle is all about. This is why that struggle is so critical.

Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a Guardian US columnist. His newsletter is at

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