‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table.
It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine?
To the extent that experts did focus on inequality within countries, they did so with respect to the late industrializers, where migration from poor villages to richer cities was accentuating income disparities.
Even there, however, inequality was considered a temporary side effect of development; the economist Simon Kuznets argued that it dissipated with modernization.
Olson’s findings had a disturbing implication: in politically stable countries, narrow coalitions of business lobbies hold back economic growth through self-serving policies, and only a major military defeat or a grisly revolution can overcome the resulting inefficiencies.
Back when Olson was writing, few economists cared about economic inequality in advanced countries; unemployment and sluggish investment were the problems of the day.Our species did not, in fact, spend most of its history in tiny bands; agriculture did not mark an irreversible threshold in social evolution; the first cities were often robustly egalitarian.Still, even as researchers have gradually come to a consensus on such questions, they remain strangely reluctant to announce their findings to the public – or even scholars in other disciplines – let alone reflect on the larger political implications.Simply framing the question this way means making a series of assumptions, that 1. Pointing this out is seen as a challenge to global power structures, but compare this to the way similar issues might have been discussed a generation earlier.Unlike terms such as ‘capital’ or ‘class power’, the word ‘equality’ is practically designed to lead to half-measures and compromise.Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines.Otherwise, the best we can hope for is to adjust the size of the boot that will be stomping on our faces, forever, or perhaps to wrangle a bit more wiggle room in which some of us can at least temporarily duck out of its way.Mainstream social science now seems mobilized to reinforce this sense of hopelessness.As a result, those writers who are reflecting on the ‘big questions’ of human history – Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, Ian Morris, and others – still take Rousseau’s question (‘what is the origin of social inequality? Since the financial crash of 2008, of course, and the upheavals that followed, the ‘problem of social inequality’ has been at the centre of political debate.’) as their starting point, and assume the larger story will begin with some kind of fall from primordial innocence. There seems to be a consensus, among the intellectual and political classes, that levels of social inequality have spiralled out of control, and that most of the world’s problems result from this, in one way or another.