In the past I think it was more or less straightforward to discuss social inequality and debate the pros and cons of inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and position in society. While there were those who believed in the absolute value of equality of wealth, opportunity, and treatment of individuals, others would defend versions of inequality. So, for example, one might suggest that it is unjust to insist upon (absolute or relative) equality of wealth on the grounds that some people are more able than others and should be rewarded on the basis of their talents. However, on the back of this defence of inequality on the basis of ability, most would tend to agree, particularly in a liberal democracy, that equality of opportunity is not only just, but also necessary in a society that needs to allocate role by ability, rather than inherited position. Although everybody would recognise the existence of class, which effectively means historically produced advantage or disadvantage, the aim of a just society should surely be to work towards equality of opportunity.
Regarding inequality of treatment, most would agree that people should be treated fairly, but understand the complications involved in achieving this in a society where historically defined norms and values might mean that some need to be treated more than equally in order to achieve some sense of fairness in an otherwise unfair society. Of course, the rub here is that by treating some more than equally in order to address historical unfairness others might feel marginalised and poorly treated in comparison. The history of class, race, and gender politics in Britain provides evidence of the complications involved in these debates. Yet my sense is that in the past we generally understood what we meant when we spoke of and wrote about social inequalities. I think that this has now changed.
Consider Theresa May’s keynote speech at the Conservative Conference in Birmingham this week, where she spoke of addressing social inequality. While I can understand May’s attempt to appeal to the working classes from the point of view of political strategy, because Conservatives through the 1980s were very effective in finding ways to entice the working classes to vote them, what I find more difficult to understand is the way the new Prime Minister employs the idea of society, and beyond this social inequality. Let me explain why?
When Margaret Thatcher dissolved the idea of society in the 1980s – insisting that there is no such thing as society, but only families and individuals – what she achieved was the individualization of society. The idea here was that the individual would no longer be held back by social forces or historical forms of social identification and could make their own way in the world. On the basis of her appeal to the working classes, through policies such as ‘Right to Buy’ (where social housing tenants could buy their property at a reduced price), Thatcher and the Conservatives of the 1980s supported inequality of wealth on the basis of a vision of democratic equality of opportunity. So, everybody could make it. Regardless of whether or not this was true, and most sociologists would probably dispute that this was ever the case because of the history of class, patriarchy, and ethnic society, I think that British society from Thatcher through Blair up to Cameron was sustained by this idea. For example, consider the expansion of Higher Education. What was this about if not equality of opportunity and life chances? While there is no sense that the British people from the late 1970s onwards believed or believe in equality of wealth (either absolute or also, I would suggest, relative), it is possible to argue that they remain committed to the value of equality of opportunity or what we call meritocracy.
Of course, what happened through the Cameron years is that it became more and more difficult to believe in the myth of the individual which essentially says that you make your own future in society on the basis of your ability, attitude to work and so on. Social forces have impacted upon people’s lives in such a way that makes it more or less impossible to sustain the Thatcherite fantasy that there is no such thing as society. It is clear that events taking place outside of an individual’s immediate environment impact upon their situation. Alongside this, it seems equally clear that these events do not impact upon everybody equally, so some seem to benefit from particular events, while others suffer. In recent years, and particularly since the global economic crash, it is apparent that inequality has increased and that the rich have become richer and the poor have become poorer. Despite what Cameron and Osborne told people, there is a sense in which ‘we were not all in it together’.
In recent social and economic history, then, we can say that the advantage of the advantaged has increased and the disadvantage of the disadvantaged has been reinforced. In other words, social mobility – how one moves through society – and social opportunity – the chance one has to improve one’s situation – have taken a hit and what we call social structure has become more rigid. Against the social theorist, Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote of the liquid society in the late 1990s, we might say that we now live in a society that is far more structured and tightly defined than at any time since the 1980s when the credit based consumer society really took off. Enter May’s stunning recognition of social inequality, which sounds like it might have come straight out of the mouth of a Labour leader, and proclamations about the Conservative Party being the party of the people. Strategically and cynically there is no doubt that it makes sense for May to take this turn, simply because she can no longer easily deny the reality of vast social inequalities in Britain, but on the other hand I was shocked that a Conservative Prime Minister would not seek to uphold the tradition of liberal individualism, insist upon the importance of hard work and self-responsibility, and essentially explain social inequality in terms of the individual problems of the lazy, the scroungers, and those who apparently want something for nothing. From a Conservative point of view, when you’re in trouble there’s only one way out - pull your socks up and get on your bike.
After listening to May’s speech, which was no doubt written with one eye on taking the ground of Corbyn and stealing the thunder of his socialism for the 21st century, I think we have now entered a bizarre, surreal, world where the new political consensus in British politics appears to be somewhere to the left of the centre. Here, the kinds of social conditions sociologists write about critically, and usually attack politicians for their failure to recognise and address, are now mainstream truths. Of course, we would expect this of Corbyn, who has lived on the fringes of the Labour Party for many years, but it is hard to understand how a Conservative Prime Minister can speak of social inequalities. But is this real? Does May know what she’s talking about when she talks about social inequalities?
Since she’s on the ground of the sociologist here, I think this is good place to point out what she’s actually saying, which is not simply that there are some rich people and some poor people and that we think the gap between the rich and poor people might be a little too big, but rather that the wealth, privilege, and position of the rich people has come about because of the poverty, lack of opportunity, and abandonment of the poor and the disadvantaged. Or alternatively, the reason things are the way they are for the majority, who are struggling to make ends meet, is because we have an over-blown, exorbitant, super rich class who have everything and refuse to pay their way to support the less fortunate. This is what social inequality really means. It means that wealth, poverty, advantage, and disadvantage are not simply individual attributes, but rather that they are social effects produced in interactions between people. While I would hazard a guess that this is nothing new to Corbyn, and the socialists of the 21st century, I would take a risk on the claim that May and the Conservative government would not understand social inequality in this way or really want to follow through on the implications of this understanding. Why?
The answer to this question is very simple. When we understand individuals in terms of social relations, and recognise that their fates are co-dependent, improvement in the condition of one person or one group of people cannot be achieved without modification of the position of others who they are bound to by virtue of their common social situation. In other words, if we want to address poverty, reduce disadvantage, and increase opportunity, we have to address the privilege of the few, the rich, the advantaged, and those who David Graeber called the 1%. In other words, tackling social inequality must come down to redistribution in some form or other.
Although I would like to believe that Theresa May will turn out to be the first socialist Conservative Prime Minister, I doubt this will be case and would imagine that she has instead appropriated the idea of social inequality in a post-Thatcherite sense where the individual is the alpha and omega of life. Coming at inequalities between rich and poor from this point of view is politically less explosive, and certainly less surrealistic for a Conservative leader, because what it effectively says is that it is a problem that some have so much and others have very little and that we should try to do something about this. What this view does not do though – and this is the key point – is invoke the sociological truth that some have everything because others have nothing and vice versa. This is the essential power relation that is immediately intelligible to sociologists, but that no Conservative Prime Minister or politician could easily recognise on pain of abandonment of the recent history of Conservative political ideology.
By contrast, what I think May actually means is that some have a lot, others have very little, this is bad, particularly for those who have very little, and that we must try to find ways to increase the wealth and advantage of everybody. In other words, we must become a richer, better off, society across the board. Who could argue with that idea? Nobody. Unfortunately, the problem with this vision is that it relies on a fantasy of limitless growth – a fantasy of an ever-expanding pie similar to something one might read about in a Roald Dahl story – that it was possible to believe back in the 19th century and the industrial age, but that it has become impossible to take seriously since the 1970s when we first became aware of the ecological limits of global economic growth. Moreover, it was this recognition of the limits of economy based in the finitude of the planet – there is only so much you can take from the earth, which is finite – that in many respects led to what we might call the neoliberal financial revolution and consequently the history of the Thatcher period, through Blair, to Cameron up to the present. What did Thatcher do if not dismantle British industry, unleash the City, and make finance the engine of the British economy?
The advantage of this financial turn in a period haunted by the spectre of low growth was, of course, that we could paradoxically have growth without growth based in finance (credit that would eventually become the dead weight of debt) and that equality of opportunity, some sense of equality of wealth, and most centrally some degree of equality of ability to consume could bought on the basis of finance. But what happened under Brown was that the system of global financialisation collapsed, because credit / debt was so far out of sync with productivity in the real economy, and Cameron was left to pick up the pieces. The result was the turn to austerity, the rolling back of the social state which was considered unaffordable in the wake of the bank bail outs, and the widening of the gap between rich and poor on the basis that conventional economic wisdom suggested that it would be a grave mistake to tax the rich to pay for the upkeep of the poor because it is the rich who are the motor of the economy. As a result, the poor, the disadvantaged, become a burden, and the Coalition was very effective in demonising the weakest members of society.
It is this situation that produced the Brexit ‘protest’ vote in June, where the have nots of British society sought to blame their situation on the European super state without recognising that the Conservative government they had elected a matter of months before was equally committed to punishing the poor for the failure of the global financial system, and eventually propelled May into power. While the architects of Brexit - Johnson, Gove, and Farage - vanished from the scene when it became clear that they had engineered a radical break with the neoliberal consensus without a real plan for what would happen next, the problem for May became how to move on. What comes next? While she seems keen to evade making everything about Brexit, the impact of the June vote is, in a sense, impossible to escape. What people voted for when they voted out of Europe is a different kind of Britain, where the divisions between distant elites and everybody else is less stark, and I think that it is this situation that May wants to respond to through her talk about reducing social inequality and so on.
However, I cannot believe that the Conservatives will actually be able to deliver on her talk, because this would effectively make her the first socialist Conservative leader, unless the plan is to return to the Blair years where easy credit was the order of the day. But while this will allow May to address the situation of the poor in the present, it will do nothing to tackle real social inequality, which remains a relation based in the power of those who have everything over those who really have nothing: simply increasing the debt burden of the poor in order to project their situation into the future is no real solution to the problem of inequality. The only other alternative I can foresee is that the power relation between the haves and have nots – and in this respect the matrix of social inequality – will become about insiders and outsiders, where this is understood in ethnic terms. Under these conditions, the problem of tackling social inequality will not become about the division between rich and poor, which would require thinking about routes to redistribution, but rather a politics of race where the white British majority attack others who have apparently condemned them to live precarious lives characterised by poverty, debt, and an inability to imagine a better future. This is, of course, a complete mis-understanding of the situation – inequality is first and foremost a problem of capitalism and only ever an ethnic problem for those who cannot see, or absolutely do not want to see, the naked truth of class division.