For a more equal world

Print edition : August 21, 2015

The egalitarian forces of the working class across the world, though diminished in their role, would still remain indispensable to the onward movement of equality, says the author. Here, workers in Kochi. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

The author focusses on diverse conceptualisations of inequality in the global and the historical context, emphasising that innumerable mechanisms generate inequality.

THE social consequences of inequality are multilayered, take many forms and have many effects: premature death, ill health, humiliation, subjection, discrimination, exclusion from knowledge and from mainstream social life, poverty, powerlessness, stress, insecurity, anxiety, and lack of self-confidence and of pride in oneself. It is, in the words of Goran Therborn, “a violation of human dignity; it is a denial of the possibility for everybody’s human capabilities to develop”. It is the social order that denies the basic fundamental rights to health, self-respect and, more than anything else, to our capacities for intervention. Privileges and disadvantages underline this malaise, especially the disadvantage of being made subservient to power inequality or cultural prejudices, with the serious and significant issue of education that clearly demarcates and divides societies into high, middle and lowbrow.

Therborn divides the unequal into three categories: human beings as organism, those as actors who depend on resources available to them, and those as persons where the existential aspect that covers self-development, dignity, autonomy, freedom and respect becomes vital to one’s identity in a civil society. Though racism, sexism and colonialism are some of the underlying issues more than ever being debated and researched in the area of identity politics, Therborn does not fail to draw our attention to them.

Therborn’s focus in the book is on diverse conceptualisations of inequality in the global as well as the historical context, emphasising that innumerable mechanisms generate inequality. Therborn writes: “Inequalities are produced and sustained socially by systemic arrangements and processes, and by distributive action, individual as well as collective. It is crucial to pay systematic attention to both. ‘Distributive action’ is here taken as any social action, individual as well as collective, with direct distributive consequences, be they actions of systemic advance or retardation, or of allocation/distribution.” Exploitation, monopolisation, production of winners and losers or the emphasis on meritocracy—a kind of system based on hierarchy or “the institutionalising of rankings of social actors” has a deep impact on the distributive practice. The notion of slavery and exploitation is integral to this conceptualisation of inequality where all divisions and categories overlap and impact each other.

The solution, according to Therborn, lies in resisting these mechanisms so as to usher in a social order based on equality where the exclusion of the poor from everyday life and the seclusion of the elites from the public is somehow countered. The social space, therefore, is manufactured through the politics of exclusion, restriction and fear as well as control on the economic resources by the ruling class. Economic policies of the state lie in the hands of rich property owners who remain allergic to the idea of democracy or any policy that favours the deprived. Difference and inequality, thus, are socially constructed, always denying commonality with those at the bottom of the ladder or the marginalised on the basis of gender bias or religious and cultural affiliations. The antidote to the whole practice of exclusion and hierarchy would be “de-hierarchisation, inclusion, redistribution and rehabilitation”.

Inequality in history

The book is more descriptive than prescriptive, basing its ideas about inequality mechanisations on empirical data. However, it does make a foray into the genealogy of revolutionary movements that have underscored the struggle for equality. Inequality as a social construction is located in history and therefore never has a linearity about it. Reform movements have their epochal moments in the French Revolution followed by the Chinese and the Russian that ushered in reforms in urban real wages to bring about a more equitable economic and social order. The Cuban Revolution, for instance, made a substantial contribution to public health which has held sway in most Latin American countries. It resolutely held on to a strong national health system right up to the present time, whereas in China the post-Maoist period saw a spiralling decline in this vital area of social necessity.

Though these revolutions did not fully succeed in narrowing the wide gap between the rich and the poor, they nevertheless left a mark on the process of equalisation: “On the eve of the capitalist turn in Russia and China, income inequality was among the lowest in the world although somewhat behind the geopolitically lucky reformisms of Scandinavia and Russia.”

Moreover, as Therborn points out, the two major wars also succeeded in mobilising mass population for the material war industry and brought to discredit, if not to its conclusion, rampant racism in Germany. Women’s political rights were also given a nudge owing to their participation in the war-torn Europe of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, “violent revolutions, large-scale industrial wars, profound economic crisis— strong storms—have been necessary to tame the ferocious anti-egalitarianism of late-feudal, patriarchal and modern capitalist societies”.

This reformist experience found its firm establishment in the modern welfare state, especially in the developed capitalist world “with egalitarian advances of existential rights and respect and a general equalisation of health and life expectancy, as well as major national equalisations of resources of income and education”. The worldwide social revolution of 1968 was most significant in making the public aware of inequality worldwide. It was part of the larger egalitarian period that saw the diminishing of patriarchy and the augmentation in social services. This was the overall moment of change, of decolonisation and the end of institutionalised racism as well as the forward surge of women’s rights in the 1970s.

Egalitarian society

Therborn is thorough on his facts and does not overlook the global distribution of vaccination, the spread of public hygiene and preventive medicine. Along with this, the eastern Pacific Rim as well as independent South Asia began to economically prosper, “embarking on a new, relatively egalitarian path of national development”. Domestic income inequality, for instance, has declined in Latin America; existential equalisation is moving ahead in Bolivia and other Andean countries and especially among the “Afro-descendants” of Brazil. Over the last many years, the two most anti-egalitarian forces, right-wing liberalism and authoritarian military dictatorships, are being put down successfully.

Therborn agrees that rapid economic development does lead to more jobs, especially in the formal sector, in Latin America, but ironically, inequality is not necessarily a result of a boom. The 2008-09 economic meltdown saw the socially concerned welfare state salvage neoliberal finance capitalism. Public bailouts stabilised waning economies and protected the public from unemployment and 1930s-like economic depression with all its harrowing hunger and poverty. Therborn argues, “For recent increases in vital inequality, there are two main suspects. One is increasing economic uncertainty and polarisation, between the unemployed and the labour market marginalised, on the one hand, and the surfers on the boom waves, on the other. The other is nowadays often called ‘lifestyle’, but is better termed ‘life-options’. It is not so much a choice of style as a perspective of possible options. People who have little control of their basic life situation, of finding a job, of controlling their work context, of launching a life-course career, may be expected to be less prone to control the health of their bodies—to notice and to follow expert advice on tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, on diet and exercise—than people who have a sense of controlling their own lives.” It is important to wait and see how far the economic and the anti-liberalism stance of governments in Latin America can weather middle-class economic development. Will there be social resistance in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil against the middle class? Signs of it are already there in Venezuela and Bolivia. The egalitarian forces of the working class across the world, though diminished in their role, would still remain indispensable to the onward movement of equality: “They were the backbone of the struggles for democracy and the right to vote, for social rights and economic redistribution. The relatively egalitarian decades of core capitalism were the zenith of organised labour, in rates of unionisation and its electoral votes. The most significant metropolitan support that the anti-colonial movements received came from sections of the labour movement.”

What we see now is the fast decline of the industrial working class in developed economies but not so much in Latin America. It stands to reason then that egalitarianism of the future will “depend on wide and socioeconomically more heterogeneous social coalitions” where street vendors, the new servant class in the service sector, middle-class employees and the marginalised lesgays, and women and ethnic minorities will play a significant role in not only identity politics but also in ushering in forces of economic and existential equality. However, in certain parts of Africa and South Asia, the politics of difference might generate exclusivity of an extreme kind that plays violently against the idea of coexistence and equal rights. Women in these locations do face widespread inequality, but education opportunities in countries like Pakistan and India are helping in opening up new avenues for work and thereby creating tangible forces of egalitarian change. India under the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party regime has to watch out. And so is the case of the stateless Rohingya people living perpetually in a state of displacement across the Myanmar and Bangladesh border.

Thus, we see in a world ridden by Zionism and extreme Islamist positions, by unbridled working of the free-market economy, the birth of “solidarity individualism” that boldly stands up against racism, against environmental exploitation, against the working conditions of labour in the South.

This, argues Therborn, is the “vital forces of equality” that were the impetus behind the Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring. They might have petered out, but it is clear that non-governmental organisations like Green Peace and the Avaaz campaign are fighting towards a day when such activism will bring egalitarianism, impartiality and inclusion for the deprived. The obvious cause of misery and the idea that equality is good for society will prevail upon humanity to engage in an ongoing struggle against the killing fields of inequality.