An eminent Australian political economist reflects on the challenge of synthesizing — for a broad array of readers — what we know about the gaps that divide us.
Another book on inequality? I’ve just written one. You might well be wondering why. In the six years since the French political economist Thomas Piketty published Capital in the 21st Century, we’ve had a steady flow of books on the topic. Piketty and an international group of colleagues have also added into the mix detailed regular reports on trends in income and wealth for an ever-widening array of nations. With so much information now available, we have little excuse for being unaware of the growing economic inequalities that exist in almost every nation on our planet.
We have ample reason, meanwhile, for worrying about inequality’s adverse social and economic consequences. Various international studies have shown strong correlations between the extent of inequality and a wide range of social disorders, everything from mental and physical ill-health to crime and incarceration rates. Extreme inequalities, we now appreciate more than ever before, also make effective action on climate change more difficult to develop. Democracy itself seems more fragile in our deeply unequal times, as economic inequalities distort and corrupt our political institutions.
What we clearly lack amid all this is a consistent political commitment to narrow the inequalities that divide us. Senior executives in international agencies like the IMF and World Bank “talk the talk,” but rarely deliver remedial action on the policy front. Conservative politicians, wedded to discredited economic orthodoxies about why we supposedly “need” inequality, remain oblivious to — and complicit in — the social disorder it creates.
Economic inequality has been a theme running through my research and writing for many decades. So I responded happily and positively to an invitation from editors at Polity to author a new book on inequality’s political economy. This would be a timely opportunity, I thought, to set out our current state of knowledge on equality for the benefit of students, activists, academics, and policy makers.
But actually writing the book has been tougher than I expected. I needed to succinctly synthesize an already huge literature on inequality. I also needed to consider related issues of ability and disability, geography, class, gender, and race. Another complication loomed: Existing analyses of inequality use different analytical frameworks and rest on varying value judgments. These frameworks and judgments demand careful sorting and made for difficult decisions about how to pitch the book’s choices concurrently to the different audiences I wanted to reach.
I also faced the unavoidable tension between objectivity and commitment. In my new book’s preface, I describe my own approach as “committed scholarship.” I’ve endeavored to have the book, The Political Economy of Inequality, coolly consider diverse evidence and rival viewpoints, an approach that entails discussing key analytical concepts and the technical aspects of inequality measurement. I’ve tried to do this discussing without losing the interest of general readers in “what is going on out there?”
And where’s that “out there” anyway? The world comes across as variegated when we see it through a “political economy of inequality” lens. In the United States, the growth of inequality has been particularly striking. But we can get a sense of more moderate possibilities by comparing the United States to nations in Europe. Looking at the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — can expand understanding of our world’s huge and increasing inequalities. And other nations like Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and New Zealand offer still other individually interesting cases. Ultimately, we need a global approach to take stock of how changing international economic inequalities are interacting with inequalities within individual nations. I’ve tried to take this approach in my new book’s pages.
I’ve also tried to balance the evidence “out there” against more general theoretical propositions, always a big challenge in the social sciences. The book moves to tackle this challenge with separate sections on patterns, processes, problems, policies, and prospects, explaining the political economic forces shaping inequality, then looking at the social, economic, environmental, and political problems that result. Finally, I look at the case for embracing more egalitarian public policies and the obstacles to their achievement, wrapping up with reflections on the prospects for more egalitarian outcomes.
In dealing with inequality, I find that blending “pessimism of the intellect” with “optimism of the will” — to use Antonio Gramsci’s classic formulation — can help quite a bit. Effective social change requires critique, vision, strategy, and organization. In other words, we need a critical understanding of what’s happening, a vision of the better world to which we aspire, a strategy for getting from here to there, and organizational vehicles capable of going the distance. No single easy answer awaits us, but, as the political economist Joan Robinson once suggested, real answers to economic problems usually come from asking political questions.
I’ve written my new book on inequality in the belief that we can achieve a more egalitarian world. But we need, of course, to understand all the obstacles ahead: ignorance, ideologies, and vested interests and institutions that entrench the status quo. My new book, I hope, will contribute directly to pushing back on ignorance and effectively challenging conservative ideologies and vested interests and institutions. I know many people share my concerns about inequality. Together, I’m convinced, we can make progress in understanding an issue so crucial to our collective well-being.
Frank Stilwell, professor emeritus in political economy at the University of Sydney, has been a long-time critic of mainstream economics. His dozen previous books have explored theories in political economy and economic policy, urban and regional affairs, and economic inequality. His latest book, The Political Economy of Inequality (Polity), is now available worldwide.