The Mysterious Fall and Rise of Inequality – Part II

James Thompson returns for his second installment on the rise of inequality


In my previous blog on the rise and fall of inequality, I highlighted the curious period (from around 1995 to 2005) during which economic inequality became all but invisible as an issue, conspicuous by its absence from mainstream and academic political discourse. This now seems like an extraordinary phenomenon, as inequality is currently at (or very near) the top of the political agenda, and obviously in the frame for so many of our current social and economic woes. I posed three questions:
  • Why did economic inequality vanish from political discourse for the best part of two decades?
  • Why is it back with such a vengeance? (In other words, how do we account for its disappearance and its re-emergence?)
  • What does the future hold for inequality as an issue?
Any explanations must be able to account for, or at least allow for, periods when inequality has been regarded as a big issue as well as periods when it has not. Studies have tended to look either at why inequality is an issue OR at why it is not given sufficient attention, but none (to my knowledge) have looked at how and why it has ebbed and flowed over time, and therefore failed to acknowledge its current renaissance.
My first main argument is that the disappearance of inequality was a historical anomaly due to an array of factors that coalesced at a certain point in time, serving to efface it.
Some of these factors may be regarded as ‘the usual suspects’ and were the intentional effects of the specific actors involved, such as direct ideological attacks on notions of equality from the Thatcher and Regan governments and their allies in academia and the corporate press (which we will look at). There is also the historic defeats of Soviet communism and organised labour that took place in the 80s and 90s in the US and the UK, and the symbolic effects that these had on the various groups and wider society. These factors can be made sense of through conventional political and historical analyses (which we will look at in subsequent blogs).
Other factors are (debatably) less readily attributable to the actions of identifiable individuals or groups and are more the effects of wider changes to society i.e. globalisation and progresses in labour-saving technology.
Other factors still are less well understood, are not immediately obvious and operate on a level altogether harder to perceive. For instance, why is it that voter turnout is generally lower in countries where inequality is higher? Why do people so often seem to collude in their own oppression? How can so many be so passive in the face of such clear injustice? Etc. Explanations may focus on the processes by which structural inequalities are ‘internalised’. To understand these factors requires a more diverse array of analytical tools that might include social, psychological and even cognitive explanations. What is especially interesting is how these processes interact with changing social, historical and political contexts over time.



Despite the diversity of the factors that served to ‘hide’ inequality in the 90s and 2000s, my second main argument is that the effects of these factors have had their day, and are now diminishing in their influence for one reason or another. The context has changed and the arguments constructed to dismiss the equality agenda no longer hold any water. Moreover, rapid change itself, such as the economic crisis and ensuing policy responses, tends to bring structural dimensions into view. This is why we are hearing more and more about inequality and it is why I predict that that the issue of inequality is here to stay (at least for the next two or three decades).
My third argument is that, in many ways, economic inequality, by which I mean the pattern of distribution of humanity’s resources and power, is THE archetypal political issue. What could be more ‘political’ than such concerns? It is what elections have been won and lost on, entire political systems built around, and a major factor in how each of our life courses will run. Therefore, there is no mystery to solve during the periods in which inequality is of primary concern to the public, the media and academia. When people view it as important and worthy of our attention, they do so because it is. Moreover, inequality has risen almost continuously since 1977 (the most equal year in our history), and its effects have become ever more severe. Even during the late 90s and early 2000s it was not a problem that had gone away (as opposed to, say, the hole in the ozone layer) in any real sense at all.
Whilst it is difficult to measure in any objective way, the mood is changing (or has changed) and we may have reached a tipping point. It feels very much like inequality and issues closely related to it are, once again, starting to take their rightful place at the forefront our debates and campaigns, motivating and guiding our political activities.
In subsequent instalments we will look in more detail at the various factors that served to obscure our collective view of inequality and consider what it means for our present situation and the future.