The killing fields of inequality
by Göran Therborn
There are three main ways of distinguishing between difference and inequality. First, a difference may be horizontal, without anything or anybody being higher or lower, better or worse, whereas an inequality is always vertical, or involves ranking. Secondly, differences are matters of taste and/or of categorisation only. An inequality, on the other hand, is not just a categorisation; it is something that violates a moral norm of equality among human beings. (To argue this is not to presuppose any norm of complete equality, but to point to a difference that is too big and/or has an undeserved direction, i.e. the wrong people getting the best rewards.) Thirdly, for a difference to become an inequality it must also be abolishable. The greater physical prowess of the average 20-year-old in comparison with the average 60-year-old is not an inequality. But the different social life-chances of women as compared to men, or of black working-class boys in comparison with white bankers boys, have come to be seen as inequalities. In one sentence: inequalities are avoidable, morally unjustified, hierarchical differences.
There are (at least) three fundamentally different kinds of inequality, and all of them are destructive of human lives and of human societies.
There is inequality of health and death, which we may call vital inequality. True, we are all mortal and physically vulnerable, and in some sense our life-tree is decided by some inscrutable lottery. However, hard evidence is piling up that health and longevity are distributed with clearly visible social patterns. Children in poor countries and poor classes die more often before the age of one, and between the age of one and five, than children in rich countries and rich classes. Low-status people in Britain die more often before retirement age than high-status people, and if they survive have shorter lives in retirement. A retired British male bank or insurance employee, for instance, can look forward to seven to eight more years of retirement life than a retired employee of Whitbread or Tesco (Financial Times, 20/21.10.07). Vital inequality, which we can measure relatively easily through life expectancy and survival rates, is literally destroying millions of human lives in the world every year.
Existential inequality hits you as a person. It restricts the freedom of action of certain categories of persons, for instance of women in public spaces and spheres, as in Victorian and Edwardian Britain, and as in some countries still today. Existential inequality means denial of (equal) recognition and respect, and is a potent generator of humiliations, for black people, (Amer-)Indians, women in patriarchal societies, poor immigrants, low castes and stigmatised ethnic groups. It is important to note here that existential inequality does not only take the form of blatant discrimination; it also operates effectively through more subtle status hierarchies.
Thirdly, there is material or resource inequality, meaning that human actors have very different resources to draw upon. We can distinguish two aspects here. The first is inequality of access – to education, career tracks and social contacts, to what is called "social capital". In conventional mainstream discussions this aspect is often referred to as "inequality of opportunity". The second is inequality of rewards, often referred to as inequality of outcome. This is the most frequently used measure of inequality – the distribution of income, sometimes also of wealth.
These three kinds of inequality interact with and influence each other. But it is useful to distinguish between them because, as well as having different types of effects on people, the different kinds of inequality have different trajectories in different periods – which means that they are governed by different causal mechanisms.
Inequality can be produced in four basic ways. First there is distantiation – some people are running ahead and/or others falling behind. Secondly there is the mechanism of exclusion – through which a barrier is erected making it impossible, or at least more difficult, for certain categories of people to access a good life. Thirdly, the institutions of hierarchy mean that societies and organisations are constituted as ladders, with some people perched on top and others below. Finally, there is exploitation, in which the riches of the rich derive from the toil and the subjection of the poor and the disadvantaged.
The historical importance of these mechanisms in generating the configuration of the modern world is hotly disputed. Are current inequalities primarily a product of North Atlantic nations forging ahead, through scientific and industrial innovations? Or are they rather an effect of exclusion, for example the British empire's hindering of Indian industry from developing? Did the "modern world system" after 1500 spawn a world hierarchy of a core, a semi-periphery, and periphery? Or was the rise of the West mainly driven by armed exploitation, by the plunder of American metals, by plantation slavery, and by forced and underpaid commodity production in the South? The debate remains unfinished, both because of the ambiguity of the evidence – there is empirical support for all four mechanisms, but it is difficult to weigh them in relation to each other – and because of the high moral historical stakes involved.
In this article, however, we shall look into the ways in which current inequalities are being produced.
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