The politics and benefits of equality

By Johan Galtung

US politics has for a long time, since the 1970s, been the politics of inequality. Not only have the indicators of inequality, like the ratio in average income between the top and the bottom 20%, or the salary ratio between a CEO and the average employee in a corporation, increased (from 50 to 1100). But the top 10 or 1 or 0.1 percent, has acquired wealth so far unheard of. And the bottom 90, or 99 or 99.1 percent see the average family income in real terms decreasing; for the lowest down below the poverty line, way down into misery like worrying about where the next meal comes from (from the soup kitchen for very many).

With these processes going on at the same time–increasing accumulation at the top, increasing inequality, and increasing misery at the bottom – whether the total average increases, so-called economic growth, fades in significance. And yet economists feed up with growth data, for the real and finance economy, and much less with (in)equality measures; domestically and globally.

There is a reason for that: the optimism related to economic growth. Inequality is seen as incentive to invest, create jobs, and produce; and the fruits of that activity will trickle down. Social ills will disappear, and trade will link countries and make wars irrational, counter-productive; something of the past.

Today that optimism is of the past. So many of yesterday’s “more developed countries, MDCs” are today in a process of de-development, “en via de subdesarrollo” in Spanish; and some of the “less developed countries, LDCs” are coming up and passing former MDCs.

Even Washington DC, WDC, is suffering the Great Recession, and nobody knows its future (prediction: a Great Depression fueled by the contradictions between finance and real economy, serving debts and serving people, and between printed money and reality.)

Then comes the book changing the discourse from growth to equality, written by two public health officials, not economists: The Spirit Level, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. They argue convincingly that social ills are more correlated with inequality than with growth: affluence and misery, homicide and suicide, incarceration rates, physical and mental illness, even obesity, not only lower down but also higher up. More social distrust, of course, across increasing distance. There is more to gain from “greater equality making societies stronger”, they argue already in the subtitle, not by that arguing zero growth.

Robert Reich, in his preface to the book, explains the rising inequality in terms of market competition (outcompeting others by rewarding a few inconsiderate CEOs, and saving on the wages of millions), and on the race for status, “class”. To that can be added what happens when those lower down try to survive: crimes for the boys, and prostitution for the girls with HIV and slavery.

And what happens when those higher up have more liquidity than they can consume and invest: speculation, with long chains charging commissions whenever derivatives change hands.

And, add what those lower down do: long chains charging commissions whenever drugs change hands. The trick is to be the penultimate before the finance economy crash taking the last dealer with it, or the killing in Ciudad Juárez of the last and richest link in the chain from the triangulo blanco down south.

Many in peace studies have argued for decades that equality domestically and globally is a major condition for peace. Imagine a conflict across some fault-line, within or among countries, like race or class, nation or territory (provinces, states, regions). The less inequality, the easier to sit down and talk it over, or accept a mediator shuttling between the parties.

The less inequality, the easier to clear past traumas, to reconcile; one reason being that they may have traumatized each other, and have a more symmetric perspective on the past.

The less inequality, the easier to solve conflicts by trading or compromise, or transcending the issues, finding something new.

The less inequality, the easier some cooperation for mutual and equal benefit can come about.

The less inequality, the easier for empathy to grow, making parties suffer the other’s suffering, and enjoy the other’s joy.

These four – reconciliation, resolution, equity, harmony – are not conditions for peace. They are peace. Reconciliation, empathy, cooperation and resolution can be done across vertical fault-lines, but with more difficulty. Chances are higher for the top dog to impose his “peace” will on the underdog: the underdog must apologize for any act of direct aggression against mountains of structural violence, solutions favor the top dog, cooperation will be lopsided, and the empathy the top dog wants is admiration and emulation. Just think of the former slaves in Haiti paying compensation to the slavers for having claimed their liberty.

Inequality means friction in the social machinery, lasting traumas, unsolved conflicts, unequal exchange and hatred across fault-lines. Small Nordic countries came onto the global stage not by being rich like Gulf states but by having strong societies.

The Spirit Level is mainly focused on economic inequality. But the military monopoly on violence is today challenged in many parts of the world. So is cultural domination by one nation in a state. So is dictatorship by autocrats, by a political class of party bosses, also by a majority democratically elected. Answers: federalism, direct democracy. Add more equality, and peace. And violence may decrease: Wither away in favor of conflict resolution!

One Response to “The politics and benefits of equality”

  • I am pleased to see that Johan Galtung is as interested in this book as I am.

    It has been widely discussed in UK but very little in the USA, where it would be much needed. HOwever, Tony Judts books, esp. Ill fares the land, gives some of the same insights, but the specific emphasis on income inequality in The Spirit Level makes it very useful.

    The book caused conservative “think tanks” to publish a counter book, The Spirit Level Delusion by Christoffer Snowdon. While Wilkinson and Pricket are researchers of international – but not unchallenged – standing, with an understanding of the methods and pitfalls of epidemiology, Snowdon is a journalist who seems to have been commissioned to attack the book.

    The Spirit Level deserves to be criticized and critically discussed, but Snowdon lacks the competence for that job.

    Te Spirit Level is one of the most important popular books of the decade which tries to explain what is going on in our societies. It should be required reading for politicians and political journalists, esp. in the USA.

    Galtung’s discussion of the implications of the book are going beyond the frame of the book itself, and would be worth a deeper discussion.

    Paul Krugman, one of the most well known economists in the public eye today, says in recent articles that the present economic downturn, in places recession and depression, is going to be recurring over many years. The most important cause is economic inequality, he argues. I can not quite follow his arguments, must study further.

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