There has always been a gulf between the haves and have nots, yet rarely has it been such a political issue. What’s going on?
Take wealth inequality. Across great swathes of history, from medieval France to the mills of industrial Britain, the wealth and living conditions of the aristocracy and the religious and financial elite were incalculably better than that of the average worker.
Or take political inequality. Often tied to the above inequalities, it was accepted that some had the right to rule, while others could only serve. From the divine right of kings to the right of the propertied class to vote, the hierarchy in political power and voice was often unquestioned.
Or, even, take racism. In the US slavery was as common place as wealth inequality in Britain and until the mid-twentieth century inequalities based on race was not only publicly acceptable but state sanctioned.
Today, though, inequality has become the issue underpinning so much political debate, from the rise of anti-immigration parties to anti-police riots erupting in US cities to anti-business sentiment.
Inequality, inequality, inequality
Some of the most influential pieces of economics analysis of last decade, for example, have focused on inequality. Thomas Pickety’s Capital is symbolic of this, but the work of Stiglitz and Krugman also point to the rising inequality and the impact it has on society.
Following the financial crash there was widespread vilification of the bankers and politicians, whose actions precipitated the crash that resulted in public bailouts of private institutions, financial troubles for millions and long-term austerity programmes across the West.
Issues like tax avoidance, executive pay and trust in business has become the big issues with which the public is concerned, while activists occupied the streets and squares of our cities under the slogan ‘we are the 99%.’ Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn may not be centre ground politics, but their rise at this particular time reflects a desire among many of the left to redress the balance in our economy and politics.
Across Europe we have seen the emergence of left wing movements (like Occupy and the Podemos) and the surge of right wing populists (such as UKIP, the front National and Donald Trump) whose slogans and, indeed, appeal are based on mobilising groups angry about inequality against those perceived as better off. Indeed, as research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation unearthed, many of those who voted for the UK to leave the EU have been ‘left behind’ and don’t have the skills or opportunities to make it. That’s why Theresa May, in her inaugural speech as Prime Minister, ran through all the inequalities she saw in society that needed to be addressed.
The debate over immigration across Europe is also about inequality. On the one hand are those arguing that those in developed economies compared to those from elsewhere have such advantages that we need to open our borders to immigrants. On the other are those arguing that people in Western countries are already struggling and immigrants are compounding this.
Bringing all this together – and in fact prompting this blog – is the headline of the right wing UK paper, the Daily Mail, today (22 Sept) saying ‘Spare us from these bleeding heart luvvies like the Clooneys who lecture us on migrants while jetting off from mansion to mansion.’
Why inequality now?
So why is inequality such an issue now, despite it being something we have lived with for centuries, often at more dramatic levels?
There are probably multiple reasons. One, and the simplest, is modern communication. Unlike any time previously, nearly everyone is faced with inequality every day. They see it on TV, in the paper, on social media, in the street. Few people can be unaware that there are vast differences in wealth, assets and power.
At the same time, as quality of life and education improve for the vast majority of people, so the ability and time to reflect on what is going around them increases. As such, people are able to look around and see that others are doing better for themselves. This discontent and jealousy is what Alan de Botton refers to as ‘status anxiety’ and Oliver James as ‘affluenza.’
Ironically, the psychology of capitalism, in which people become more aspirational as they become richer, has fuelled this. People want more and more, and as such they want more from life – better experiences, better stuff – and as they acquire it they quickly move on to wanting the next thing. In this sense capitalism itself creates both the inequalities and the discontent with those inequalities. Capitalism is its own ‘gravedigger’ as Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto.
And arguably this is reinforced by the reality of the liberal ideal of equality of opportunity. We are told in different ways that we live in meritocratic societies in which people are on a level playing field and therefore create their own luck and life chances. This, in principle, ought to mean that people view any equalities as a fair outcome – those who have wealth, assets, a good life deserve it because they worked for it. In practice, though, cards are generally stacked in some people’s favours not others. By virtue of the luck of where you’re born, when and into which family, people’s life chances vary radically, even before you factor in natural ability and talent. The disconnect between the rhetoric of equality of opportunity that is so important for a liberal society and the grim truth of inequality makes the gulf between the have and have nots a glaring issue.
These are just hastily jotted down thoughts. I know there is evidence to back up some of this which I haven’t explored fully or cited, and I know there will be evidence to contradict it, and the next step might be to explore some of that.
The point is that, perhaps because status and merit are such strong motivations in our lives it is perhaps not surprising that inequality is becoming the issue that defines so many of the political debates today. In this sense, we seem to be living in an age of inequality.