The killing-fields of inequality
The evidence that unequal societies inflict great damage to the life
and health of their citizens is clear. Why does it matter and what can
be done? Göran Therborn thinks big.
THERE ARE AT least three quite different kinds of inequality, and they
are all destructive of human lives and of human societies.
The first is inequality of health and death, what might be called
vital inequality. Here, hard evidence is accumulating that health and
longevity are distributed with a clearly discernible social
regularity. Children in poor countries and poor classes die more often
before the age of 1, and between the age of 1 and 5, than children in
rich countries and rich classes. Low-status people in Britain die more
often before retirement age than high-status people. Vital inequality,
which can be measured relatively easily through life-expectancy and
survival rates, destroys millions of human lives in the world every
The second is existential inequality, which hits the individual as a
person. This kind of inequality restricts the freedom of action of
certain categories of persons, for instance that of women and other
marginalised groups in public spaces and spheres. This form of
inequality means denial of (equal) recognition and respect, and is a
potent generator of humiliations - for women in patriarchal societies,
for indigenous groups in the Americas, for poor immigrants, for those
of low caste, and for black people or stigmatised ethnic groups. It is
important to note here that existential inequality does not only take
the form of blatant discrimination; it also operates effectively
through more subtle status hierarchies.
The third is material or resource inequality, which means that human
actors have very different resources to draw upon. There are in turn
two aspects here. The first is access to education, to career-tracks,
to social contacts, to what is called "social capital" (in
conventional discussions, this is often referred to as "inequality of
opportunity"). The second is inequality of rewards (often referred to
as "inequality of outcome". The latter is the most frequently used
measure of inequality - the distribution of income, and sometimes also
The production of inequality
Inequality can be produced in four basic ways:
* exclusion: meaning that a barrier has been erected making it
impossible, or at least more difficult, for certain categories of
people to access a good life.
* institutions of hierarchy: meaning that societies and organisations
are constituted as ladders, with some people perched on top and others
* exploitation: meaning that the riches of the rich derive from the
toil and the subjection of the poor and the disadvantaged.
* distantiation: meaning that some people are running ahead and/or
others are falling behind.
The historical importance of these mechanisms in generating the
configuration of the modern world is hotly disputed. It can be argued
that exploitation, though the most repulsive generator of inequality
and still a significant feature of today's world, is not the major
force. A major role is played by organisations and societies that are
permeated by subtle hierarchies of social status: these create
inequality through their unequal allocation of recognition and
respect, the limitations they impose on the freedom to act, and their
impact on self-respect and self-confidence. The existential
inequalities of these social hierarchies in turn have serious
In the course of the 20th century there was a substantial income
equalisation in most western countries; but class differentials of
life-expectancy widened, particularly among men. In 1910-12 an
unskilled manual worker in England or Wales had a 61% bigger risk of
dying between the ages of 20 and 44 than a professional man; by
1991-93 this extra risk of early adult death had risen to 186%
(calculated from R. Fitzpatrick & T. Charandola, "Health" in A.H
Halsey & Josephine Webb, eds., Twentieth-Century British Social Trends
[Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2000]).
The hardest evidence for the lethal effects of status hierarchies is
probably Michael Marmot's study of 18,000 Whitehall civil servants
over twenty-five years (see Michael Marmot, Status Syndrome: How Your
Social Standing Directly Affects Your Health and Life Expectancy
[Bloomsbury, 2004]). The risk of early death closely followed the
office hierarchy. When age, smoking, blood-pressure, cholesterol
concentration, and a few other such factors had been controlled for,
those at the bottom of the hierarchy died from coronary heart disease
50% more often than those at the top.
The barriers of exclusion have been generally lowered in the world
over the last century. The exclusion of women - from public space,
labour-markets, and career-ladders - has declined. Racism has become
widely discredited, and the late 20th-century return to the mass
migration characteristic of the late 19th century is also consistent
with more inclusion.
Moreover, the regaining of national sovereignty by formerly colonised
countries in the post-1945 period removed some barriers, and (for
China and India in particular) opened up possibilities of development.
There was virtually no economic growth in China and India in 1913-50;
in 1950-73, China's annual growth was 4.9%, and India's 3.5% (see
Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD [Oxford
University Press, 2007]).
But although lower than before, exclusion is still a major feature of
the contemporary world - not least as it is divided into exclusive
nation-states, each with its specific rights for citizens only. There
are also other excluding processes at work - for example
protectionism, such as in American cotton production which hits hard
some poorer countries of sub-Saharan African.
The paradox of distance
The final mechanism of inequality, distantiation, is the most subtle
of all: the mechanism or channel most difficult to pin down morally
and politically. This is in part because it reveals a paradox of the
age: in travel and technology, distances have shrunk enormously; yet
in income and social indicators, distances are increasing both across
the world and within many (if not all) countries.
In the first half of the 1970s, the distance in life-expectancy at
birth between sub-Saharan Africa and high-income countries was
twenty-five and a half years; by the early 2000s it was thirty years
(see Human Development Report 2007-08 [United Nations Development
Programme, 2007]). In Britain, the life-expectancy gap between the
rich and the poor has been increasing by around six weeks annually
since the 1980s (see Mary Shaw et al, The Grim Reaper's road map: An
atlas of mortality in Britain [Policy Press, 2008). Within
metropolitan Glasgow in the west of Scotland, the gap between males in
the districts of Calton and Lenzie is twenty-eight years: larger than
that between Britain and Africa in the 1970s. Russia and several of
the post-Soviet states of central Asia and the Caucasus are now too
falling behind in life-prospects.
GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa, measured in terms of domestic
purchasing-power, was in 1973 about 8% of the United States's; by
2005, this had dropped to 5%. Within the US, the richest 1%
appropriated an 8% share of total household income in 1980; by 2000,
this had grown to 17%. In Britain, the richest 1% received 6% of all
income in 1980; by 2000, the figure was about 12.5% (see T Piketty,
"Top Incomes Over the Twentieth Century: A Summary of Main Findings",
in AB Atkinson & T. Piketty, eds., Top Incomes over the Twentieth
Century [Oxford University Press, 2007]). The gap between the income
of the richest and that of average workers is now much wider in these
and many other states than in pre-modern times.
Another angle from which to view the new economic distance is the
current world distribution of wealth. In March 2008, Forbes magazine
listed 1,125 billionaires in the world who together owned $4.4
trillion (almost the entire national income of 128 million Japanese);
by March 2009, the number of billionaires had fallen to 793, and they
owned only $2.4 trillion (the entire national income of France) (see
Luisa Kroll, et al, "The world's billionaires", 11 March 2009).
Such distantiation is the main route to increasing inequality today.
Its effects are highly visible in ostentatious consumption; it also
operates more through stealth than through assailable principles or
blatant violations of human rights. It is not a causal force, but a
true mechanism of inequality. A number of factors drive it.
There have been great increases in global income gaps because some
countries have fallen behind. Russia and other countries of the former
Soviet Union are victims of a ruthless restoration of capitalism,
which has caused massive unemployment, economic insecurity,
impoverishment and existential humiliation. The leading British
epidemiologist Michael Marmot has estimated the death-toll of
capitalist restoration in Russia in the 1990s as around 4 million
In addition, African countries have also contributed to distantiation,
for complex reasons that include the legacies of colonialism and
neo-colonialism and the continuing unequal terms of trade between the
continent and most of the rest of the world.
There are also widening gaps in incomes within countries, which are
driven mainly by increases at the top; though in the United States,
the poorest 20%of the population has also seen a slow decline in its
income since the late 1990s. The fact that the income gap is due to
those at the top running ahead rather than the poor falling behind
means that competition from low-wage countries is a minor component.
But it is worth noting that the trend towards income inequality is
primarily an "Anglosphere" phenomenon (shared Canada, Australia, and
New Zealand as well as the US and Britain; it has not been so evident
in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Switzerland).
Why is economic distance widening?
There seem to be two major processes at work. The first is the
extension of solvent markets, which has increased both the pool of
rewards and the competition for star talent. Three aspects of this -
the lifting of controls on capital movements in the 1980s, the
expansion of transnational investment, and the emergence of a global
executive and professional market - have had the result of catapulting
a small business elite upwards. A similar phenomenon has occurred in
the arenas of sports and entertainments.
The second process is the increasing autonomy of financial capitalism
from what is still called the "real economy". This is something
particularly pronounced in Wall Street and the City of London, and
their Anglosphere emulators. Since the late 1990s this has turned
capitalist finance into a gigantic casino where the trade is in
currencies, "securities", and "derivatives".
The amount of nominal money involved has become astronomical (see
Saskia Sassen, "Too big to save: the end of financial capitalism", 1
April 2009). In early March 2009 the Asian Development Bank estimated
that by then the value of financial assets in the world could have
fallen in the current crisis by $50,000 billion, which is equal to the
total value of the world's product in 2007 (see Gillian Tett, "Lost
through destructive creation", Financial Times, 10 March 2009).
Inequality, so what?
Even those who accept that inequality is a fact and is increasing
might respond: so what? Why does it matter? It matters because
inequality is a violation of human rights. Few people are likely to
argue that a society in which inhabitants of the most disadvantaged
neighbourhood (Calton, in Glasgow) have on average a life-expectancy
twenty-eight years lower than those in the most privileged ones
(Lenzie in Glasgow, and Kensington & Chelsea in London) 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?.
Social status hierarchies are literally lethal (see Richard Wilkinson
& Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost
Always Do Better [Penguin, 2009]). The United States - the richest
country on earth, and the most unequal of the rich countries - has,
the third highest rate of relative poverty among the thirty
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)
countries; only Mexico and Turkey are ahead. The poorest 10% of the US
population has an income well below the OECD average, lower for
example than the poorest tenth in Greece (see Growing Unequal? Income
Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries [OECD, 2008]).
The turn of capitalist finance into a huge global casino has created
the current economic crisis, and put hundreds of thousands out of
employment, and is now demanding billions of pounds of taxpayers'
money. In the global south the world crisis is bringing more poverty,
hunger, and death (see Paul Rogers, "A world on the edge", 29 January
A growing social distance diminishes social cohesion. This in turn
means more collective problems such as crime and violence, and fewer
resources for solving problems like global warming. In this respect,
an experience of the full power of inequalities is found in the
violence and the fear of most South African and Latin American cities.
By contrast, western Europe - that part of the continent east of
Britain, west of Poland, and north of the Alps - is still the world's
least inegalitarian area.
What is to be done?
In overall terms, income inequality is still governed by divisions
between nation-states: some countries are rich, others poor. But
increasingly, global inequality is to a large extent becoming
inequality based on class and intra-state ethnic demarcations which
cut through the cross-national ones.
"Globalisation", however, is not a convincing excuse for accepting
inequality. A move towards global equalisation requires that the
disadvantaged forces within inegalitarian countries are strengthened.
This in involves two sets of processes.
The first is social inclusion, for example by bringing women and other
subordinated groups into public space and labour markets in many parts
of the globe. This has already contributed to changing the Creole
coloniality of some of the Amerindian republics of Latin America,
particularly Bolivia and Ecuador; though in general the issue of how
to include the "first nations" into the polity of the 21st century
remains on the agenda across the length of the Americas, from Chile to
Canada. The European Union has also made a contribution, through the
recent inclusion of an impoverished eastern Europe into its area of
The second powerful tool to address inequality is redistribution and
associated social compensations. Denmark and Sweden are the least
income-unequal countries in the world. The Danish welfare state spends
28% of GDP on social expenditure, the Swedish 31%; while Britain
spends 20% (see Society at a Glance: OECD Social Indicators [OECD,
2007]). Both these Scandinavian countries are heavily dependent on the
world market: the export of merchandise makes up 35% of Denmark's
gross national income and 40% of Sweden's - compared to 17% of
But, pro-marketeers may ask, is such equality and generosity
sustainable in the context of the world market? The irrefutable answer
is yes. For many years, the Scandinavian countries have also been at
the very top (together with the United States and Switzerland) of the
Global Competitiveness Reports published by the annual World Economic
Forum at Davos. Denmark, for example, was ranked third in global
competitiveness in 2006-08, and Sweden fourth in 2007-08. Britain
(under the New Labour government) had slipped from second in 2006-07
to ninth in 2007-08 (see Michael E Porter & Klaus Schwab, The Global
Competitiveness Report 2007-08 [World Economic Forum, 2007]).
Such composite rankings must always be treated with caution. But the
recurrent success of the Nordic welfare-states - with Finland ranked
sixth and oil-Norway sixteenth out of 131 countries on a list of the
most successful capitalist economies - indicates that generous,
relatively egalitarian welfare-states are neither utopias nor
protected enclaves, but 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. The lethal effects of inequality make the search for
Göran Therborn is professor of sociology at Cambridge University.