Is this the age of inequality?


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.



Cleaning not fishing: what a north east coastal village says about work today

With new figures showing that unemployment has dropped again, it’s worth reminding ourselves that increases in employment come in the context of a changing labour market. And if you want to remind yourself about how it’s changing you can do worse than visiting Seahouses.

Seahouses is a large seaside village in north east England. A historic fishing port, the former terminal for a major railway, the centre of which is a busy working harbour.

Here boats come in and out through the day. Large lobster baskets sit drying on the side, waiting be loaded on to boats at the next high tide. And the smell of fish and diesel that characterises a functioning port is strong.

But fishing is only a small part of the story of Seahouses now – an increasingly small one.

When you look closer most of the boats in the harbour are former fishing boats now being used to load queues of tourists on puffin and seal watching trips to the Farne Islands. The port activity, on closer inspection, largely consists of these small vessels being cleaned and prepared for the next trip.

And a stroll along the high street of Seahouses, at least in the summer, reveals a thriving service industry, with tourists weaving in and out of pubs, chip shops, cafes, arcades and souvenir shops.

The newsagent window advertises for local jobs, and there are a lot for such a small town: ‘bar and waiting staff wanted’, ‘cleaner required for holiday homes’, ‘receptionist needed for busy hotel’, ‘seasonal handyman required for caravan park’.

The contrast between what Seahouses was and is, is striking. From a working port where working was to run or man a fishing boat, battle the elements and bring back a catch that could then be sold on, Seahouses is now a bustling tourist town characterised by low skill and often seasonal jobs in the service sector.

Fishing and hospitality jobs contrast in a number of ways that are telling.

  • Whereas fishing is a trade learned and often passed down through families and in communities, cleaning and waiting is low skill work.
  • The high tides might come and go, but fishing is a long term occupation whereas the hospitality industry is seasonal.
  • Fishing is largely based in Seahouses, meaning that the people it benefits will stay in the areas, whereas service sector jobs come and go and, as holiday trend change, could easily move out of the area.
  • Fishing – like trades such as agriculture or skilled manufacturing – gives people a profession, a sense of shared identity, of doing something that matters, and perhaps even self-respect. Service sector work, on the other hand, has a low status and therefore those doing it have less of a sense that their work gives them a stake in the economy and as such their identity and sense of status in society needs to come from some part of their lives other than work.

Fishing, of course, is hard. Income is often low and unstable, the job itself is dangerous and hard, hours can be long. This is not to idealise fishing. But it is to say that there are big differences for a town and its residents when its work is built on serving tourists rather than catching fish.

Name me a village where a Nobel prize was won

brooklyn-nyc-4ea28a2f“Some cynic said to me, name me a village where a Nobel prize was won.” I heard Professor Ricky Burdett of the LSE’s Cities Institute say this on an excellent piece of radio on London’s development the other day and it got me thinking about the city and the countryside.

The city – as a major, heavily populated and diverse conurbation – is routinely lionised as the place for creativity, innovation, revolution. Yes, there are major problems to deal with – slums, overcrowding, pollution etc – but, the argument goes, cities are a melting pot for the creation of new ideas.

This praise for the city tends to go hand in hand with criticism of the countryside, often as conservative and backward looking, as Burrett’s Nobel prize comment implies.

Cities are of course wonderful  for all the reasons cited, but at the same time the countryside needs defending. I don’t know if any Nobel prizes have been won by villagers, but that’s beside the point. (Nobel prizes are won by individuals often  in universities who may or may not live in city itself.)  There are other goods that come from people living in rural areas:

It offers vital space for reflection. Cities are places of investment and innovation, they are places where things are made to happen. The countryside offers time for thought and reflection. Frederic Gros’s book, The Philosophy of Walking, shows how thinkers like Nietzsche, Thoreau and Rousseau used the time and space of walking in the wild to think deeply.

 It is less consumerist. The city is awash with commerce – fast paced living where acquisition and new experiences are endlessly consumed. So many of these, from the latest purchase to meals out, are transitory experiences. What Karl Marx said of capitalism is most accurate of all in its depiction of the city: ‘All that is solid melts into air.’ Much of life in the countryside is different: slower, with less intense but perhaps deeper experiences llike walking, gardening, being home, and so on.

It’s home to experiments in different ways of living and organising.  With such overcrowding and inequality, it is said – by David Harvey In Rebel Cities and Mike Davies in Planet of Slums among others – that the city is likely to be the site of resistance and revolution.  But at the same time, rural areas have often been places for new movements to emerge too. To name a few: the low ;impact living movement is a network of people trying to live off the land and off grid. ‘back to the landers’ in the ’60s and ’70s were aiming for self-sufficiency as an alternative to capitalist development; the landless peasants movement in Latin America, the Zapatistas in Mexico, and the network of self governing villages in Southern Spain at the time of the Spanish Civil War.

 It tends to create tighter bonds of community. A big area of discussion for city builders is how to create a sense of community in large and often transitory city neighbourhoods.  In the countryside, by contrast, communities are often well established and connections between individuals are strong because they are so frequent: through schools, social activities, work, travel, meeting regularly, people see one another so regularly in different contexts that multiple tight bonds develop easily and quickly.

None of this is to say that the countryside is better than the city or that it doesn’t have its problems. Just as the city as its good and bads, rural areas do too. But it is to say that the countryside can offer, among other things, non-consumerist spaces for reflection and experimentation – and for that reason we shouldn’t just talk about cities as the places for progressive ways of life.