Saturday, August 11, 2007

Inequality



To what end is class, a category basic to capitalist society, treated under the heading "inequality" e.g. in the research of the left liberal Joseph Rowntree Foundation? This abstract "inequality" in a way suggests its opposite: quantitative inequality through qualitative equality; as if this society was an unfortunately inequitable version of socialism, and as if the only sociology thinkable was that of "economic man", (uncoerced and uncoercing, unaccumulating). Society is here found unfair not structurally, but in an inessential way; as if only "decoratively" unfair, on account of its practical efficiency (this is almost suggested). Thousands of homeless people affirm this society is not socialist.

3 comments:

NotesfromtheUndergrad said...

This is a really interesting post, could you please expand upon this idea? Why is it the 'thousands of homeless people which affirm that this society is not socialist'? Why them more than any other socio-economic group? Is it because the homeless are those who are structurally excluded from taking part in late capitalism? It is not that the homeless are incapable of getting a job (as if, say, thay haven't quite got that public school confidence which would enable them to succeed in an interview!), but that late capitalism only functions by making a significant percentage of people unemployed.

catmint said...

"Why them more than any other socio-economic group?"

that's a very good point - I hadn't really considered it. I'm more concerned with the way the language addressed to the working population - the working class, the middle class structurally excludes, as it were, the possibility of homelessness.

"It is not that the homeless are incapable of getting a job"

yeah, I'm a bit utopian - I think everyone's capable of everything too

"but that late capitalism only functions by making a significant percentage of people unemployed"

very true

-thanks for your comment

catmint said...

Two reports by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation were discussed by the BBC

here

the reports are summarised here

"Economic inequality has become a striking feature of the UK's socio-economic structure. Income inequality stands at historically high levels, and asset inequality has increased since the 1990s, with the top 1 per cent now owning nearly a quarter of all marketable assets.

Inequality and poverty are closely related, but inequality is also a distinct phenomenon. There is growing interest in economic inequality, and evidence that a high level of inequality may cause socio-economic problems.

The Labour government has displayed concern with some forms of inequality but its position regarding economic inequality is somewhat ambiguous. It has focused more on tackling equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcome.

This study has been carried out because relatively little is known about public attitudes to inequality and redistribution."

...and here

"Since 1970, area rates of poverty and wealth in Britain have changed significantly. Britain is moving back towards levels of inequality in wealth and poverty last seen more than 40 years ago.

Over the last 15 years, more households have become poor, but fewer are very poor. Even though there was less extreme poverty, the overall number of 'breadline poor' households increased – households where people live below the standard poverty line. This number has consistently been above 17 per cent, peaking at 27 per cent in 2001.

Already-wealthy areas have tended to become disproportionately wealthier. There is evidence of increasing polarisation, where rich and poor now live further apart. In areas of some cities over half of all households are now breadline poor. There has been slower change in wealth patterns overall. The national percentage of 'asset wealthy' households fell slightly in the early 1990s but rose dramatically between 1999 and 2003 – 23 per cent of households are now wealthy in terms of housing assets.

The general pattern is of increases in social equality during the 1970s, followed by rising inequality in the 1980s and 1990s. Changes since 2000 are less clear.

Urban clustering of poverty has increased, while wealthy households have concentrated in the outskirts and surrounds of major cities, especially those classified as 'exclusive wealthy', which have been steadily concentrating around London.

Both poor and wealthy households have become more and more geographically segregated from the rest of society.

'Average' households (neither poor nor wealthy) have been diminishing in number and gradually disappearing from London and the south east."

So the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are discussing a number of issues including inequality. They're looking at a number of factors quite closely. It's not bad research. But the effect of it being filtered through the media seems to be that "inequality" is presented as the most important issue, while two related issues the research has also looked at:

1. absolute poverty

2. the class structure

...are relegated to relative unimportance.

Maybe I'm being overly obtuse but talking about "inequality" and not these other issues seems to suggest we're talking about a society of a single class, as the Minister for Employment and Welfare Reform seems to suggest:

"Thanks to reforms of the tax and benefits system, the average household is £1,000 better off than 10 years ago."

This is made absurd if you try talking about homelessness as "unequal housing"

The other variation is that the negative efects of poverty are reduced to a kind of envy, as the Liberal Democrat spokesman seems to suggest:

"This left-out 25% is in danger of feeling totally marginalised from mainstream society, which will breed high levels of disillusionment, crime and exclusion,"