The Political Origins of Inequality, by Simon Reid-Henry

Book of the week: Angelia Wilson on a call for us to take seriously our political responsibility for global poverty

February 25, 2016
The Saturdays, Jo Brand, Red Nose Day, Comic Relief
Source: Alamy
Not by photo op alone: charity drives may assuage our guilt, but tackling the crises of failed states and global poverty demands a revived ‘embedded liberal order’

Occasionally, my father, a Bible Belt preacher, would give a “toe-stomping” sermon – one in which his honest, plain-spoken derision of a particular small-town moral/political issue landed squarely on the toes of community leaders wriggling uncomfortably in the pews. Those particular morning worship services were rarely followed by the usual invitation for the preacher’s family to come over for Sunday lunch. Speaking truth to power ain’t easy.

Adopting a similar tone in The Political Origins of Inequality, Simon Reid-Henry indicts the liberal Left for exchanging ideals of social democracy for 30 pieces of silver or whatever is the John Lewis equivalent. Thinking about poverty while warming next to the Aga in a Victorian semi is hard. We like our stuff, and if the price we have to pay for absolution is a quick phone call during Sport Relief or Children in Need, then so be it. But the Good News is that Reid-Henry does not require us to give up our way of life in order to relieve the suffering of others. “We” – to adopt Reid-Henry’s own rhetorical style of constituency-building – might be able to continue with our Islington lifestyle and help the poor. So already this book is worth a read. The vibrant prose and humour-infused hermeneutics of social science literature are merely bonuses.

According to Reid-Henry, the debate about world poverty offers us two solutions: Big Aid (in which star-studded non-governmental organisations offer humanitarian relief) and No Aid (whereby libertarians, questioning the capacity of an often corrupt “developing” state, hawk their free-market panacea). Such binary framing, Reid-Henry argues, undermines the ideals of Western democracy such as the state, the rights of citizens and the protection for the victims of capitalism. We need (better) policy solutions of an “embedded liberalism”. We need to rethink the intimate relationship between the haves and the have‑nots, between the North and the South, between developed and developing counties.

In its current configuration, the primary goal of development is (Western) economic growth. Instead of diversifying markets, the entire world economy has rearranged itself “from an increasingly vibrant bazaar into an auditions queue for Western industrial manufacturing”. So for starters, to solve this inequality dilemma, we must rethink economic growth as the only marker of progress. The “tyranny of growth” offers an elixir but overlooks the fact that such growth is not limitless, and is certainly not sustainable.

Inequality is relational. Other possible solutions fail to grasp this sufficiently. Cosmopolitanism is too elitist; philanthropy too particular. Neither will solve our collective problems. John Rawls’ disembodied liberalism must be replaced with an embedded liberalism or, as Reid-Henry translates, a kind of global social democracy. We are called to a “global public-mindedness” that emphasises not moral obligations to the poor (which serve only to make us feel guilty and inept) but good old-fashioned political responsibility.

This revival of an “embedded liberal order” accepts “regulations on economic activity” and “sets the market as the servant of the state”. In reaching back to a version of welfare-capitalism, Reid-Henry acknowledges problems with the Keynesian state. But he is keen to emphasise the importance of the market and the state working together. To be clear, he is not advocating a neoliberal state that engages in “regional economic gerrymandering” through trade agreements. Instead, he reminds us of a construction of the state as the protector of citizens’ welfare. He professes faith in a state where social policies provide basic healthcare and genuinely enable citizens to fare well. One can but squirm in the St Albion pew as the orator points the finger: “Having first lost faith in the Lutheran church of embedded liberalism, the rich nations, now firmly under the grip of the economic Counter-Reformers, set about vigorously depriving the rest of the world of their faith in the human powers of the state over the purity of market mechanism.”

Third-Wayers have been “passively smoking” (or should that be inhaling?) the ideologies of globalisation espoused by the Right – seduced by Robert McNamara’s call to defang the Third World and thereby, as Reid-Henry observes, “turning it from a wolf to be feared into a street dog to be pitied and spurned”. We are far too concerned with our own stability, our own safety. Our generation – “the generation of the risk society – is encouraged to preoccupy itself with being secure”. The West created “a growth industry out of the security crisis” of corrupt failed states in those “developing” countries. Security über alles – where the UK restructures the aid budget to focus not on those with the most need but rather on those countries that are deemed a security risk to “us”. Are we really surprised that Americans carry guns everywhere, including in church?

“The real problem”, Reid-Henry explains, “is that for all we live in an economically globalized world, we do not live in anything like a sufficiently politically globalized world.” Instead, nations fashion tax loopholes that allow the world’s largest corporations to vacillate legally between tax evasion and tax avoidance in “unregulated capital flight”. Dated institutions, remnants of global governance, such as the United Nations, are weak and now left behind by the economic regulatory power of the Group of Eight.

The past half-century has been tough for the Left. With the collapse of the far Left and the spread of the neoliberal hegemony, “we” became “too hobbled or too shamed to resist”. My own cynicism, at this point running amok, is forced to pause for a moment. Although there may be little chance of either Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders leading the free world, they have amassed significant followings – of a size and reach I thought impossible in a post-Thatcher/post-Reagan era. Their popularity has caught many by surprise, not least New Labour and Hillary Clinton. Perhaps we are, as Reid-Henry suggests, growing tired of the “social cost imposed by the misery of others”.

Reid-Henry is a geographer, not a political scientist. Yet in The Political Origins of Inequality he has mapped the terrain of our current political landscape with frightening accuracy. From this cartography, he points the way forward: we need a politics that prioritises social prosperity over economic growth. We need to reinvent the social democratic project “at home and abroad” – including a global institutional system to mediate effectively between existing public and international law. We must do the hard work of “joining up the dots…of a far too patchy, far too easily manipulated institutional framework that governs the lives of the rich and poor around the world but does not govern them alike.”

If you lean to the Right, you can easily dismiss all this as welfare-capitalist backward-looking claptrap. Never mind. You are not this book’s target audience. If you lean to the Left, or like to think of yourself that way, then Reid-Henry has you firmly in his sights. This book is a sermon imploring “us” to turn from our sinful ways. We are called to remember the legacy and potential of social democracy. We are called to political responsibility. For that reason, I suspect that some on the Left won’t like the message much more than those on the Right. But then again, the seeds of social democracy seem to be falling on fertile soil lately, so maybe Reid-Henry, despite the toe-stomping, will be invited to Sunday lunch after all.

Angelia R. Wilson is professor of politics, University of Manchester.

The Political Origins of Inequality: Why a More Equal World Is Better for Us All
By Simon Reid-Henry
University of Chicago Press, 208pp, £17.50
ISBN 9780226236797 and 6827 (e-book)
Published 11 January 2016

The author

Simon Reid-Henry, reader in geography at Queen Mary University of London, grew up in Essex, “which is to English counties what it sometimes feels geography is to the academy. It was a rural and free-ranging childhood. We built camps in fields and fished in secret ponds, and in the autumn we shut windows to keep out the smell of burning stubble.

“The village itself was built around three estates: a council estate, a lower middle class one, and an upper middle class one. The village school was located in the middle and was the one space where those class identities were shed. It was an object lesson in how social class in Britain shapes the very fabric of society; and in our after-school and summer play, why it needn’t do so, as well.”

He now lives in Oslo with his family. “My wife is Norwegian (she is a successful scholar of anthropology and public health here). We met while I was masquerading at an anthropology conference: a daily reminder of the benefits of interdisciplinarity! Aside from the fact that today we have our careers in different countries, the reason we live in Norway and not in the UK, even though I still work in London, is because Norwegian society is much better at accommodating families than the UK.

“We have two gorgeous young boys who go to the most amazing full-time nursery, and it costs us just £450 a month for both children. So we can each go to work and each be at home to spend lots of time with the kids. At this stage of our lives and careers, that makes Norway a no-brainer (although I will admit that dressing two kids in full snowsuits and then lugging them up a hill in -7 degrees is not always the best start to my day).

Of his early years, Reid-Henry says that “what most shaped my childhood was the fact that my father died when I was seven (we were both hit by the same car). When you are young you can’t really take something like that in your stride, because you haven’t yet actually found it. You are perfectly positioned to see how others respond, however. And watching my mother (who worked as a teacher) give everything of herself afterwards so that my sister and I could achieve what we wanted to left a huge impression on me.

“It was nearer the end of my school years that I think my own response came. Until then I had cultivated a sort of laid-back demeanour; ‘never risk anything’ being the theory, I suppose,” he muses. “But at some point I noticed that people’s expectations of me had fallen to the level of my own. That really angered me and so I decided to apply to the University of Cambridge – just to show I could set my own tests, that they’d be harder than anyone else’s, and I’d pass them all the same. Luckily for my then-fragile ego, I did.

“Luckily as well for my chances, I was at a grammar school and had been taught by some amazing teachers – the sort who jumped on desks to enact scenes from Shakespeare and who generally spun your world around. They would probably be fired on the spot today,” he adds. 

Reid-Henry says he arrived at Cambridge “on a wave of determination. But I spent most of my time there just drinking in the fact that here you could sit and read in some of the most beautiful libraries in the world and listen to some of the most inspiring lecturers condense their own life’s work for you, and all while the world was taking on a gradually more comprehensible shape before your eyes. In short, like all Cambridge undergraduates, I was extremely privileged. Unlike many, though, because of where I came from, I think I recognised this at the time.”

If he could change one thing about Cambridge, what would it be? “It needs to become much more diverse than it is, and I know that many within the university want this. Sadly, I don’t think introducing admissions tests, as currently planned, is going to help them achieve that goal one bit.”

And what of Reid-Henry’s discipline, geography? What would he change about how it is taught?

“The real challenge for geography is in the US, where it isn’t even offered at some of the best universities, although the University of California, Berkeley is an exception in this regard. I think some of my fellow faculty at Queen Mary have done amazing things over the years, combining first-rate research with a commitment to principles of social justice and fairness, and as a school we have incorporated much of that into the teaching we offer. It’s precisely that social and intellectual creativity which makes geography such a valuable discipline.”

In addition to his post at Queen Mary, Reid-Henry is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo. 

“We share a building (and canteen) with the Red Cross, and so seeing up close the humanitarian work that goes on there (including housing refugees during the coldest days of winter) has brought some of the things I study and write about very close to home. PRIO is mainly staffed by political scientists, international relations scholars and quantitative researchers: all of them world class. For someone whose intellectual heart beats mainly on the Left Bank, that’s been an incredible learning experience, too. I haven’t yet made too many converts to the joys of Georges Canguilhem, though!”

The UK was the second most equal country in Europe in the mid-1970s; today it is the most unequal. One of Reid-Henry’s previous books, Arven Etter Thatcher [The Thatcher Legacy] considers her impact on Britain. Does he see increased inequality as one of the legacies – or even the most marked legacy – of Thatcher and those who came after her?

“To be honest, one of the single biggest problems I see in the UK these days, after having lived outside for a few years, is the extent to which gender inequality is not only hard-wired into society in the UK but tolerated. After 40 years of reforms Sweden itself is now only halfway to full equality between men and women when it comes to taking parental leave; at the present rate of change men will take as much time out of their careers to care for their children in 2035. It’s hard to see under present conditions that the UK will ever get there.

“University colleagues aside, I know just a handful of female friends who have not gone part-time or closed shop on their careers altogether after having children. This is one of the reasons I try to show in The Political Origins of Inequality that there is a history to the making of inequality that involves us all (and hence there can also be a future in trying to unmake it). Your pointing to the mid-1970s is right on the money, too. If you compare income inequality in Britain, the US, Sweden and Norway from the early 1970s to today, you see that the biggest change has been in the UK, which at the start was grouped with the Scandinavian countries, but which since then has progressively (or regressively we should say) detached itself from their company to re-position itself alongside the US.

He adds: “Obviously a lot happened on Mrs T’s watch to explain this. But there is a more to it than that. The story that needs to be told of those years – and it is the subject of my next book – is a story of what capitalism has done to democracy tout court.”

What is his view on tuition fees? Given his focus on the role that political decisions play in perpetuating or exacerbating inequality, does he believe that the students he teaches should have their undergraduate education offered to them on terms similar to those he had, and as home/EU students in Scotland and Germany presently have?

“When students get kettled in the process of introducing a policy then there’s a good chance it’s not an unequivocally great idea,” he says, in reference to widespread protests at the coalition government’s decision in 2011 to raise the undergraduate tuition fee cap to £9,000 a year.

“But you’re quite right to put the spotlight on education more generally. One of our most brilliant and original thinkers, R. H. Tawney, was very clear on this: education is about the single most effective way to address structural inequalities. It is where public good and private benefit most productively intersect. If you can’t support that agenda, and New Labour was as guilty as the current government here, then you shouldn’t be in politics.

“It is a disgrace that students have to indebt themselves to gain the education they deserve. It is a disgrace that universities, because they are too busy cartwheeling about trying to solicit additional students, have not done more to resist the entirely predictable consequences of turning education into a market and students themselves into commodities. Young people today have more than enough chance to become commodities elsewhere in their life. Can we not keep education as a space geared towards learning and not earning?”

What gives him hope?

“Good writers give me hope. They find a way to cut through the noise of the day-to-day and fix your attention on what really matters. I would like to say that there was a particular politician who gives me hope, but I think that is one of the truly scarce commodities of our time. I say somewhere in the book that we need to learn to change the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ in politics, and that is precisely what inspiring leaders ought to be able to articulate.

“Perhaps most generally, living in Norway – whose relative success I have to remind people time and again has a lot less to do with oil and its presumed smallness than people think – gives me hope that democracies can be effective still. It doesn’t take a revolution; it just takes a bit of nous. Having actually lived, in the course of my work and research, in countries ranging from market liberal to socialist, I am convinced that social democracy has answers that neither of the other two have.

“But as I explain in this book, social democracy needs reinventing today if those answers are to remain valid,” Reid-Henry concludes. “What interests me, going forward, is whether we Brits will come to see that reinvention as a programme that speaks to our own particular needs as a society, and especially at a time when our existing political choices seem to be at such a low ebb.” 

Karen Shook

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