Inequality is supposedly one of the defining political issues of our age. There exists in the world today massive inequalities between regions, between countries and within countries which have sometimes widened not narrowed in recent decades. Such inequalities could be financial (income, wealth) or non-financial concerning access to public services, quality of the physical environment etc.
If we consider accrued wealth, it has been said that he world's richest 1% now have more wealth than the rest of the world's population combined. If we consider income then we also see huge inequalities. By my calculation the average income in the five richest countries in the world is more than a hundred times greater than that in the five poorest countries. Associated with these differences in income and wealth will also be inequalities in such measures as life expectancy, ill health, security etc etc.
Just prior to leaving office, President Barack Obama published a valedictory essay in The Economist journal where he stated.
"A capitalism shaped by the few and unaccountable to the many is a threat to all. Economies are more successful when we close the gap between rich and poor and growth is broadly based. A world in which 1% of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99% will never be stable.
The French economist Thomas Piketty writing in his seminal work "Capital" mentions inequality as follows:
"There are no natural forces pushing against the steady concentration of wealth. Only a burst of rapid growth (from technological progress or rising population) or government intervention can be counted on to keep economies from returning to the "patrimonial capitalism" that worried Karl Marx.
Piketty ends his book by calling for governments to step to prevent soaring inequality contributing to economic or political instability down the road.
While not as great as the global scale, huge inequalities exist within the sixth largest economy in the world (the United Kingdom). In the UK we see huge inequalities of many types between:
• Different regions of the UK - especially between the South East and the North
• Those in employment and those not in employment
• Those who have good educational attainment and those who have not had good education
• The elderly and the young leading to a lack of inter-generational equity
At the end of the day, I suggest it was the existence of such inequalities in the UK that led to BREXIT. We continue with such huge inequalities in the UK at our peril.
If such inequality is so widespread and has the potential to destabilize societies why is it that the political responses to it seem so feeble? Leading politicians from all parties seem to pay lip service to the reduction of such inequalities without ever taking the radical actions needed to provide a lasting solution.
Writing in a US context, the American political scientist Professor Mark Lilla provides an explanation. He believes that the reasons for this situation can be found in the failure of what is termed "identity politics". Identity politics can be defined as:
"Political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of specific social groups identified on the basis of gender,race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation".
The thrust of Lilla's arguments are that those who are generally passionate about and committed to reducing inequalities in our society get sidetracked into pursuing the narrow agenda of one or more of these specific social groups. Consequently, they fail to gain the broad-based support needed to win political power and effect they changes they desire to see happen. As a Democrat in the USA, Lilla writes about the current difficulties of the Democratic Party which has been at the forefront of identity politics in the US for decades. Currently, the Republican Party holds the Presidency, the Senate, the House and also controls almost 70% of the state governorships. Not a good position to be in.
Similar arguments can be made for the UK. Arguably the Labour Party is the party most committed to reducing inequalities (at least in rhetorical terms) but it is trapped in the mire of identity politics. In the general election earlier this year it failed to win sufficient support to gain political power even when up against a divided Conservative Party, a weakened Prime Minister and a poorly run campaign. This was the third election in a row it has lost.
Mark Lilla is not saying that identity politics are unimportant but that they are far less important than focusing on the large mass of our society which lives in poverty and squalor, and incorporates children facing severe hardship.
The problem is that it seems very difficult to do much about this because the media firmly supports identity politics and crucifies anyone who steps out of line. One often questions whether the London based media has any understanding at all of what it is like to live in rotten council estates in Blackburn, Blaenau Gwent, Knowsley etc or even if they are aware that such places exist. The concerns of minority groups in London seem of much greater importance to them than the state of the mass of the population.