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May 25, 2014 | by  | in Features Online Only |
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Inequality from the Left

Inequality is the talk of the town at the moment. Unthinkable phenomena are afoot; a copiously-noted 700-page academic tome by a French economist recently topped the Amazon bestseller list. The living wage movement gathers momentum; city councils in Wellington and Seattle have voted to implement living wage rates far in excess of the legally mandated minimum in their respective countries. Signs of the approaching apocalypse? Perhaps not, but certainly signs that we live in interesting times.

There’s an important phenomenon at work in the global economy at the moment, little-noted amongst all the mainstream noise. While inequality within countries is, broadly speaking, increasing, inequality between countries is decreasing. As people in China get better off, Americans get poorer. In short, the gap between the first and third worlds is starting to shrink. If the trend continues in the coming decades, the consequences will be epochal. The modern era has been profoundly shaped by the gulf between the West and the rest. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, European and American imperialism ensured that the development of non-Western countries was held back, while co-opting working-class movements in their own back yards by offering them some of the fruits of imperialism in the form of high wage rates. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, Western employers discovered they could undercut workers at home by taking advantage of cheap labour overseas. All the familiar phenomena of deindustrialisation took hold – deserted factories, urban blight, unemployment. The so-called ‘postwar consensus’ embodied in strong trade unions and the welfare state unravelled as outsourcing became an increasingly powerful weapon against the traditional manual working class. Governments like Margaret Thatcher’s in the UK depended on new social layers of white-collar workers whose interests the old trade unions did not represent.

Nowadays, the process is highly advanced. Unions are moribund or dead. The old political left is for all practical purposes finished; parties like Labour and the Greens have taken on an increasingly middle-class hue, and old-style left-wing policies – high top tax rates, a strong welfare system – are unthinkable. Today, white-collar workers themselves find their position under threat. The American media is full of stories about the decline of the middle class; in the countries of southern Europe, most particularly Greece, nearly every social layer except the very top has seen their standard of living savagely attacked. For the most part, political opposition has been ineffective, especially as a consequence of the decline of the left.

This is the story of inequality in the first world. In the third world, industrialisation has proceeded apace. In scenes very much reminiscent of the Europe of the nineteenth century, industrial squalor and grime exists alongside incredible wealth. Labour movements in countries like Bangladesh and South Africa agitate for higher wages, and face savage state repression in return. One of the big questions of the twenty-first century is how all these phenomena will play out politically. Will there be a strong, organised Left in Asia, as there was in Europe? What kind of concessions would such a Left be able to win? Will a revolutionary left emerge, or re-emerge, as a viable political project? How will ruling classes in the third world respond? If the outsourcing option is not available to defuse working-class opposition, what will happen? And as far as the first world is concerned, will there ever be a concerted and effective opposition movement against austerity, and how could such a movement be built?

What does it all mean for us, for students? As far as can be seen, unfortunately, the consequences look grim. Labour force participation rates continue to decline, a sure sign that all the trends of the late twentieth century are still in full swing. The advance of computer technology means that middle-class occupations hitherto safe from automation will disappear. Young people increasingly find themselves unemployed, or in insecure, badly-paid, part-time work. The value of a degree in the job market is decreasing, even as tuition fees continue to increase. And the welfare system grows ever-more threadbare and punitive toward the unemployed. Is this situation stable, or are the powers that be setting themselves up for social explosions and instability in the future? Can we build a political movement that can put a stop to all this, and what would it look like? These are, to me, all open questions, and the challenge is ours.

Interesting times indeed.

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