Monday, December 7, 2015

Vital Changes (2015)

Book Review from the December 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Killing Fields of Inequality', by Göran Therborn. Polity £14.99.

Yet another book on inequality and its consequences? Yes, and one that contains a lot of statistics but that also has some new points to make about the types of inequality and their impacts on people’s lives.

Therborn distinguishes three kinds of inequality. The first is vital inequality, dealing with people’s life chances (life expectancy, likelihood of years without serious illness, etc). The second is existential inequality, referring to people’s autonomy, dignity and freedom (thus covering any discrimination on the grounds of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on). Lastly is resource inequality, primarily a person’s wealth and income but also including the support they receive from their parents.

As this suggests, one of the book’s strengths is its emphasis on inequalities other than those of income and wealth. Therborn argues that what should be aimed at is ‘equality of capability to function fully as a human being’ (taken from the writings of Amartya Sen) and ‘the rights of all children to a good enabling childhood’. As the book’s title suggests, vital inequality is an important aspect of this, and in Ukraine, for instance, life expectancy is three years less for men than it was in 1990. In London among many other places, your lifespan depends to a large extent on how well-off you are. In general, lack of control over your life is bad for your health: the poorer you are, you are not just likely to die younger but to suffer more years of ill health.

As for existential inequality, discrimination on the grounds of gender is decreasing but still exists and is sometimes quite extreme (in South Asia, for instance). Therborn argues that existential equalisation is a non-zero-sum game: if women or gay people are in general subject to less prejudice or oppression, it does not by itself affect the lifestyles of the privileged. In contrast, resource equalisation is zero-sum: if the share of the poorest in the world’s wealth increases, that of the elite will decrease. Hence the rise in resource inequality in recent years, with countries such as Brazil and South Africa being the most unequal. And it was recently reported that there are more billionaires in China than in the US.

But, as so often in books along these lines, it is in the last couple of chapters that the author disappoints. Therborn accepts that capitalism will be around ‘for the foreseeable future’, and he appeals to the middle class (vaguely characterised as the non-rich and non-poor) to align with the poor. This way they can combat both the suffering of the poorest and the exclusivism of the oligarchs, leading to ‘an egalitarian enlightened society’. But he gives no reason to believe that egalitarian capitalism is possible. 
Paul Bennett

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