How do you know its inequality when you see it?
I think what is happening in social science --very broadly speaking--is that there’s a conceptual shift with this mainstreaming of the idea of inequality. We used to talk about poverty and unemployment before we had this radical popularisation of the concept of inequality with the work of Piketty and others. So what is the difference? I think inequality is different in that it includes the idea of a relation. So the notion of inequality is suggesting that there’s a kind of predatory relationship between people and social groups.
I think this concept of inequality contains three important presumptions. The first is that inequality is not some kind of original or natural condition. Inequality, as it’s seen and understood right now, is the outcome of a process. So, by contrast, poverty could be considered as sort of natural or default human condition in the absence of development.
Secondly the idea that inequality contains the presumption that there’s something morally suspect about this. So it’s a normative problem, and I think that’s because our political discourse about development and in the developed countries has somehow normatively valorised the idea of inequality. By using inequality in this way, we’re saying that there’s something wrong with it.
And then the third thing is the assumption that inequality, in the way were thinking about it right now, is a political and institutional effect. The presumption in economics is that the market is a leveler. But then we say, “look at all this unbelievable inequality!” Then the question is: Is the market not doing its job and is actually producing this kind of inequality? So then, we direct our attention to political institutions and other kinds of institutions.
Have levels of inequality gone too far?
Well, they surely have. I think that probably a lot of people would have thought they had gone too far thirty or forty years ago. But now we’re talking about a radical dramatic skewing on national and world scales that was clearly not only unimaginable but thought to be patently impossible, given all theories of economics and politics that we have been relying on for many, many decades. So, it’s clearly gone too far and one of the interesting things about the new research agendas is a reviving of the older idea that inequality itself makes inequality difficult to address, and produces further perverse and undesirable outcomes. It’s not just a static condition of undesirable inequality, but that the levels of inequality are themselves producing these radically and distortional negative effects that we’re very worried about.
What types of policy should be directed at tackling inequality?
We need to tax these vast fortunes, and redistribute that money in ways that sustain broader based livelihoods. We need to redesign the national and global institutions that create economies that channel money upwards at this radical pace and exclude others and chop off these huge sections of the economy as irrelevant to the fate and fortunes of the uber rich. Let me put it this way: from my perspective in political science, the problem is not what policy could be adopted, but under what conditions could any policies be adopted. Who controls the political institutions that produce these inequalities? Why do they work the way they do?
For the past 30 years, we have focused a lot of our attention on African politics. It’s one aspect and one slice of reality but it’s representative of the issue of structural adjustment programmes. It’s radical externally because of structural shrinking of the state and opening of African economies to this highway of international competition in all domestic markets. This has been a huge driver of poverty and inequality in African countries. People have become, in fact, poorer than they were before. One of the reasons for this is because structural adjustment programmes are sweeping across huge range of policy areas. But the other thing is that the authors of these policies were institutions that are supposedly under the democratic control of the advanced industrial countries. So, these policies were undertaken by our institutions. The Americans were the primary drivers and in fact even within the World Bank and the IMF there is a lot of pushback from European institutions against the structural adjustment agenda.
So when you ask "how do you get good policy?", the better question is "how do you stop really bad and harmful policy from being made?" Why did we let this happen? It’s a problem of political control.
Where should pressure on policy-makers be coming from?
With respect to the international financial institutions, and those based in the United States, there have been civil society actors that have raised voices for more pro-development, macro-economic and social policies for many years that have not been very strong voices. They have played a role over time but it took them many decades to have an impact, and when they were heard it was because partially because the powerful actors realised that their radical and harmful programmes had failed.
I also think that on some level one thing that could be interesting to note here is that citizens need to have a more global conscience, because what governments do in their names affect our world as a whole as we know. Climate change, for example, is where global commentary on the direct and dramatic effect a country’s policies have on another country’s people – the global consciousness that is now around through various forms of media – this is a very good place to start.