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The killing-fields of inequality

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But income and vital distances are increasing, between different parts of the world and within many countries. In the first half of the ls, the distance in life expectancy at birth between sub-Saharan Africa and high-income countries was Glaswegians from Calton have a shorter life expectancy than Australian Aborigines. In it had dropped to 5 per cent measured in terms of domestic purchasing power.

In the UK the richest 1 per cent leapt from receiving 6 per cent of all income in l to taking about The gap in income between those at the top and the average worker is now much wider than it was in pre-modern times. In English baronets had an annual income about one hundred times higher than that of labourers and out-servants, and times that of cottagers and paupers. Another angle from which to view the new economic distance is to look at the current world distribution of wealth. In March , before the bubble burst, Forbes magazine listed billionaires in the world.

That was almost the whole national income of million Japanese, or a third of that of million Americans. Distantiation is the main road to increasing inequality today. It is the most subtle of mechanisms, the one most difficult to pin down morally and politically. Though its effects are highly visible in ostentatious consumption, it operates more through stealth than through assailable principles, or blatant violations of human rights. But distantiation is a mechanism or a channel of inequality; it is not a causal force.

So what drives it? It should be underlined at this point that distantiation is very rarely a product of extremely hard work or singular merit; it mainly results from windows of opportunity and networks of contact, or, conversely, from pre-given odds and social isolation. One reason for the growth in distance in vital inequality across the globe is that some countries have fallen behind. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen its life expectancy drop because of AIDS, which for reasons still not fully understood has hit Africa harder than any other area of the planet. Russia and the former Soviet Union, on the other hand, are victims of a ruthless restoration of capitalism, which has caused massive unemployment, economic insecurity, impoverishment and existential humiliation.

Michael Marmot has estimated the death toll of capitalist restoration in Russia in the ls to be about four million people. The global increase in income gap is again mainly an effect of Africa falling behind. But here the reasons are more obscure and contested than in the case of mortality.

The impoverishment of the former Soviet Union and the late twentieth-century crisis decades in Latin America have also added to the increasing distance between levels of income across the globe. That the top is now running ahead rather than the poor falling behind means that competition from low-wage countries is a minor component of the gap. It cannot be described as a consequence of modern times, since it has not been so much of a trend in Germany, France, Netherlands, and Switzerland.

What has driven the enormous widening of economic distances among people in the last decades? There seem to have been two major processes at work. A small business elite has been catapulted upwards, surfing on the soaring stock markets that were sustained by the lifting of controls on capital movements in the ls and the expansion of transnational investment, and profiting from the emergence of a global executive and professional market.

A similar phenomenon has occurred in sports and entertainment something that is increasingly discussed in apologetics for inequality ; commercial television and satellite broadcasting have transformed the economics of sports and entertainment in general, while hugely expanded audiences widen the visibility and attraction of stars, augment the remuneration pool and increase profits. Entertainment capitalism and stardom symbiotically feed off each other. The amount of nominal money involved has become astronomical. The bonus culture was rewarding immediate expansion, and was not bothered about later losses.

It is noteworthy that in the US and the UK, as finance was distancing itself from the rest of the economy, it was simultaneously moving closer to admittedly very relative left-of-centre politics. In the final stages of the US Presidential campaign, conservative columnist David Brooks noted sadly in the New York Times that investment bankers were for Obama.

What do the high gamblers and the New Democrats and New Labour have in common? A common contempt for industrial society, with its working-class collectivism and its bourgeois values of work, thrift, and restraint? OK, inequality is a fact, and increasing, so what? Does it matter if David Beckham earns much more than you do? Tony Blair on one occasion appeared to offer this question as a cover for leaving income inequality untouched. My answer is that it does matter, because inequality is a violation of human rights; the invocation of celebrity pay is simply a smoke-screen. Few people are likely to argue that a society which awards 28 fewer years of life to people in the most disadvantaged neighbourhood Glasgow Calton than to those in the most privileged ones Glasgow Lenzie, London Kensington and Chelsea is a decent society.

Is it a vindication of the superiority of capitalism that male life expectancy in capitalist Russia is now seventeen years shorter than in Cuba? Why should those on the lowest rungs of the Whitehall ladder have a four times higher likelihood of dying before retirement age than those on the top rungs? The USA — the richest country on earth, and the most unequal among the rich countries — has the third highest rate of relative poverty of all the 30 OECD countries after Mexico and Turkey.

Such relative poverty means being excluded from many parts of the social and cultural life of your society. But the US also scores badly on absolute poverty rates: the poorest tenth of the US population has an income well below the average poor of the OECD; the income of this group in the US is lower than that of the poorest tenth in Greece. In the South the world crisis is bringing more poverty, hunger, and death. The stretching social distance between the poorest and the richest diminishes social cohesion, which in turn means more collective problems — such as crime and violence — and fewer resources for solving all our other collective problems, from national identity to climate change.

For an experience of the full power of inequalities, you should look at the violence and fear of many South African and Latin American cities. While explicitly refusing the mantle of the politician or the prophet, there are a few things an expatriate scholar might venture to say. Global inequality is to a large extent class and intra-state ethnic inequality. While overall income inequality is still governed by nation-state divisions, class and ethnic demarcations are cutting through them.

As we learnt above, intra-Glasgow inequality of life expectancy in the s superseded the gap between the UK and sub-Saharan Africa in the ls. However, large gaps exist within nations as well as between them. In Brazil the top-to-bottom ratio in was 48; in Chile it was 40; and in South Africa it was Global equalisation requires that the popular, disadvantaged forces of the inegalitarian countries are strengthened. There are mechanisms of equality — already tried and tested — as well as mechanisms of inequality.

Thus rapprochement is the opposite of distantiation, whether this is achieved through catching up or by compensating for handicaps. China and India are catching up after regaining their national sovereignty around l — arguably a more significant break with the past than the turn to state-guided capitalism in China from l and to capitalist liberalisation in India from around l Within countries, affirmative action in favour of scheduled castes and tribes in India, in favour of women from South Asia to the North Atlantic, and in favour of African-Americans in the US, have been significant in reducing inequalities.

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Inclusion as opposed to exclusion has brought women into public space and labour markets in many parts of the globe. Recently it has changed the Creole coloniality of some of the Amerindian republics of Latin America, especially in Bolivia and Ecuador, though defeats have been suffered in Guatemala, Peru and elsewhere.

The European Union has also made a contribution recently, through the inclusion of an impoverished eastern Europe into its area of prosperity. In retrospect, the managerial moves away from hierarchy that began in the ls turn out to have led, in terms of income, to the vanishing of the middle, with a greater polarisation between top and bottom, rather than to have been a measure of equalisation. Gains from post-hierarchical informalisation can perhaps be expected, but hard evidence seems to be unavailable.

Redistribution and recompensation are also powerful tools for addressing inequality. Denmark and Sweden are the least income unequal countries of the world. Pro-marketeers will perhaps ask whether this equality and generosity is sustainable in the context of the world market. The irrefutable answer is yes. For many years the Scandinavian countries have scored well on competitiveness as well as on equality. In the editions, Denmark was ranked at no 3 in global competitiveness, and in Sweden was no 4, while New Labour Britain was at no 9, down from no 2 in While these composite rankings should always be taken with a pinch of salt by serious observers, the recurrent success of the Nordic welfare states on a world capitalist list with Finland on rung 6 and oil-rich Norway on 16 among countries certainly means that generous, relatively egalitarian welfare states should not be seen as utopias or protected enclaves, but as highly competitive participants in the world market.

In other words, even within the parameters of global capitalism there are many degrees of freedom for radical social alternatives. And the literally lethal effects of inequality make searching for them imperative. Calculated from R. Fitzpatrick and T. Charandola, "Health", in A. Halsey and J. Marmot, "Social determinants of health inequalities", Lancet , Vol. Atkinson and T. Historical data from Maddison, op cit, table 5.