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Inequality… June 25, 2015

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.

Colin Murphy has a thoughtful piece on inequality in the SBP, even if the ideas therein aren’t necessarily to my taste. His basic thesis is that inequality shouldn’t simply be a concern of the left. Indeed he argues that:

Two world wars, the advent of the welfare state, the deepening of the concept of national identity and the advent of a sociological understanding of man as a product of his environment all served to promote the idea (and practice) of greater equality.

In the 1990s, though, with the “second globalisation”, this consensus collapsed. The result was both soaring inequality and a weakening of the social cohesion required to combat it.

I don’t think it’s any great stretch to point to the existence too of a counterweight in regard of the USSR as an implicit reason why western states tended towards welfarism during the post war period as states sought to entice populations away from communism. Now this isn’t as such an argument for supporting the existence of such states – one could rightly feel that it was at the very least problematic that oppressive states guaranteed implicitly European welfare states. And one could also wonder at the inability of social democracy to defend the gains of that period as well.

But be that as it may Murphy rightly notes that:

The danger here is that this becomes a vicious spiral. I saw how this works in microcosm when I lived in Johannesburg (where income inequality has increased since the end of apartheid). The rich perceive the poor as a threat, so they retreat into secure, private space.

Public spaces and services become the preserve of the poor, so the rich have less interest in subventing them. The public sphere thus deteriorates, and ever more people abandon it.

This is, as many will know, particularly evident in the US, and not just there. Underfunding of public services is now manifest across the ‘developed’ world in states where low taxation and decreasing expenditure is becoming the norm. That this has appallingly negative effects upon citizens and their lives is a form of almost deliberate collateral damage, and intrinsic to the dynamic.
Murphy suggests that French academic Pierre Rosanvallon has warned that the corrosive effects of the processes described above threaten the fundamental basis of our and others societies (given the level of inequality in this state). And he suggests that:

At the heart of this is the idea of reciprocity. If people don’t believe that the others around them are contributing their fair share, they won’t either. Reciprocity (which is similar to what Robert Putnam calls “social capital”) is vital to the success of democracy. And inequality is corrosive to reciprocity. He quotes Tocqueville: selfishness is “to societies what rust is to metal”.
The feeling that reciprocity has broken down is directed at “the two extremes of the social ladder” – the very rich and those dependent on welfare. For this, he has three remedial solutions, which could appeal across the political system: greater transparency of fiscal and social statistics, so people know exactly what is being paid by and to whom; “vigorous” measures to prevent tax and welfare cheating; and a return of universal welfare benefits.

I fundamentally agree with the latter, have question marks as regards the second and think the first is unquestionable. But I wonder if in some ways this prescription is simply too late. Because it’s not just a question of the status quo ante, but of a changing economic context where work itself, at least well paid, continuous medium to long career, style work is becoming – under the pressure of automation and other factors – scarcer.

In that new context the very nature of work itself and the relationship between state and citizens alters and it is telling and troubling to hear a rising chorus of voices – in the field of political economy calling for basic incomes, shorter working weeks and so on.

Yet, it is refreshing to hear again how inequality is in and of itself part of the problem rather than, as often seems to be the orthodox line, not merely an unavoidable byproduct, but rather a virtue of a system that is itself deeply problematic.


1. gendjinn - June 25, 2015

Inequality always topples societies. Those that study history are doomed to watch those that don’t, repeat it.


2. Dr. X - June 26, 2015

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