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Review of Goran Therborn, 'The Killing Fields of Inequality'

Nought Else Being Equal
February 19, 2014

In one of those cases where satire cannot trump cold hard fact, the power brokers and heavy thinkers who gathered at an Alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum last month expressed great concern about the danger that growing inequality poses to social stability everywhere. As well they might.

Strictly speaking, "widening income disparities" was only one of 10 issues flagged by the Forum's Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 report, along with "a lack of values in leadership" and "the rapid spread of misinformation online." But a couple of concerns on the list -- "persistent structural unemployment" and "the diminishing confidence in economic policies" -- were variations on the same theme. Two or three other topics were related to income disparity only a little less directly

In case you didn't make it to Davos last month (my invitation evidently got lost in the mail this year ... as it has every year, come to think of it), another gathering this summer will cover much of the same ground. The 18th World Congress of the International Sociological Association -- meeting in Yokohama, Japan, in mid-July -- has as its theme "Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology." The scheduling of their events notwithstanding, it was the sociologists who were really farsighted about the issue of growing inequality, not the "Davos men." The ISA announced the theme for its congress as early as December 2010.

And the conversation in Japan is sure to be more focused and substantive. A lot of business networking goes on during the World Economic Forum. By some accounts, the topic of inequality figured more prominently in the news releases than in actual discussions among participants. It's almost as if all of Bono's efforts at Davos were for nought.

Available a solid six months before the sociologists put their heads together in Yokohama, Goran Therborn's The Killing Fields of Inequality (Polity) ought to steer the public's thinking into deeper waters than anything that can be reached with a reductive notion like "widening income disparities." Money provides one measure of inequality, but so do biomedical statistics, which record what Therborn, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Cambridge, calls "vital inequality." (Income disparities fall under the heading of "resource inequalities," along with disparities in access to nutrition, education, and other necessities of life.)

A third, less quantifiable matter is "existential inequality," which Therborn defines as "the unequal allocation of personhood, i.e., of autonomy, dignity, degrees of freedom, and of rights to respect and self-development." A big-tent concept of Therborn's own making, existential inequality covers the limitations and humiliations imposed by racism, sexism, and homophobia but also the experience of "people with handicaps and disabilities or just the indigent overlorded by poorhouse wardens or condescending socio-medical powerholders," among others.

While analytically distinct, the three forms of inequality tend to be mutually reinforcing, often in perfectly understandable but no less miserable ways: "Nationwide U.S. surveys of the last decade show that the lower the income of their parents, the worse is the health of the children, whether measured in overall health assessment, limitations on activity, school absence for illness, emergency ward visits, or hospital days."

The differences in health between the offspring of well-off and low-income parents "have been measured from the child's age of two, and the differentials then grow with age." A study of mortality rates among men in Central and East European countries shows a pattern of higher education corresponding to a longer life; men with only a primary education not only died earlier but were more prone to longstanding illnesses. (The patterns among women were comparable "but differentials are smaller, less than half the male average.")

Such inequalities within countries look small compared to those between countries, of course -- and Therborn piles up the examples of so many varieties of inequality from such diverse places that it becomes, after a while, either numbing or unbearable. Generalization is hazardous, but the pattern seems to be that a considerable variety of inequalities, both inter- and intranational, has sharpened over the past 30 years or so. Not even the author's own country of origin, Sweden -- so long the promised land for social democrats -- has been spared. Therborn's study of income developments in the Stockholm Metropolitan area between 1991 and 2010 showed that "the less affluent 80 percent of the population saw their income share decline, while the most prosperous 10 percent had their share augmented from 25 to 32 percent."

Furthermore, the share of the income that top tenth earned from playing the Stockholm Stock Exchange grew 282 percent over the same period. In Sweden as elsewhere, "the top side of intra-national inequality is driven primarily by capital expansion and concentration, and that at the bottom by (politically alterable) policies to keep the poor down and softened up to accept anything."

It seems unlikely that the CEOs, financiers, and politicians at Davos ever had it put to them quite like that. But Therborn seems equally unhappy with his own discipline, which he thinks has somehow managed to dodge thinking about inequality as such.

"Among the fifty odd Research Committees of the International Sociological Association," he writes, "there is not one focused on inequality." The closest approximation is the one on "Social Stratification," which he says "has mainly been interested in intergenerational social mobility."

That mobility having been, for the most part, upwards. But the distance from the bottom of society to its top verges ever more on the dystopian. In a rare flourish, Therborn invokes the alternative: "the positive lure of enlightened societies governed by rational and inclusive deliberation, where nobody is outcast or humiliated, and where everybody has a chance to develop his/her abilities."

To reach it, or even to move in that direction, implies a battle. "Nobody knows how it will end," he concludes. "Which side will you be on?"

I don't think he's asking just the people who will be there in Yokohama this summer.

 

 

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