Systemic Inequalities: Is Change Possible?

The concept of systemic inequality is polarizing and complex. In the latest discussion in the “Humanities for Humans” series, historian Robin D. G. Kelley and literary scholar Bruce Robbins delve into its roots, social manifestations, and potential solutions.

Although we may hold the belief that all humans are created equal, it’s a fact that certain socially defined traits, such as race or gender, heavily influence our chances of leading a good life. And there is no sign that this is about to change – the gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing, as are education and health disparities.

Systemic inequality has been the latest topic in the discussion series “Humanities for Humans,” a joint venture of the Walter de Gruyter Foundation and the non-profit organization 1014 – space for ideas. In eight virtual and in-person events over two years, renowned scholars from a variety of disciplines and from both sides of the Atlantic take a deeper look at some of the most polarizing issues of our era.

Most recently, historian Robin D. G. Kelley from the University of California and literary scholar Bruce Robbins from Columbia University explored the many faces of inequality: what it really means, where its roots lie, what keeps it going, and what role guilt plays in fighting it. They also discussed concrete examples, potential solutions to systemic inequality, and whether there can be hope for change after all.

Learn more about the lecture series “Humanities for Humans” in this interview with Irene Kacandes.

Moderator and curator of the series Irene Kacandes from Dartmouth College started the discussion off with a fundamental question: How is inequality debated in the field of humanities? These are the participants’ opening remarks.

Robin D. G. Kelley

I think the word “inequality” itself can be a chimera because it’s a relative measure. It’s a measure of holdings and access, as if there’s some kind of finite amount of wealth out there that’s unevenly distributed. Even statistics regarding the share of the wealth or unequal access to health care sometimes don’t tell us where the wealth comes from or how the processes of generating wealth or surplus involve things like outright deprivation, ongoing dispossession, the exploitation of labor and resource extraction – all of which creates poverty in places where there was no poverty prior. There is this assumption that there was always poverty, but this is not exactly the case. It’s a relative relationship, forcing individuals and communities and nations into debt which is then leveraged to force states to adopt austerity measures. This not only further strips exploited communities of access to life giving resources (water, fuel, food) to pay back this debt, but it accelerates the rate of exploitation, human misery, and environmental degradation. Ultimately, the problem is capitalism. It’s not a matter of a global or national balancing act, but of exploitation.

In terms of how we got here, that’s a long story. I would think of it not so much as an explosion, but a series of explosions. The book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” by Walter Rodney demonstrates how the current global economic structure has its origins in slavery – not just theft and exploitation of African labor, but the massive social violence, human destruction and instability which is a result of 400 years of constant war. He also talks about how colonialism not only paid for itself through taxation, forced labor surplus, military conscription, currency boards, and looting art; he shows how this exploitation of African resources and the use of forced labor actually saved Europe, for example during the Great Depression. It kept Europe afloat. Of course, this resonates beautifully with Bruce’s reading of Orwell’s dilemma in his incredible book “The Beneficiary.”

“When we talk about inequality between nations and within nations, that inequality within nations has a much older source.”

Colonial exploitation also created a colonial elite whose tool for its reproduction as a class was the state itself. So, when we talk about inequality between nations and within nations, that inequality within nations has a much older source. Also, while some of the surplus might have alleviated the conditions of working people in the West, the Global North – whatever you want to call it – the US colonizing countries, not all classes shared the colonial exploitation or the wealth equally. This is a slight revision on Walter Rodney. Instead, the acceleration of production, new access to raw materials, and expanding markets actually strengthened the position of labor in what became known as the Global North. Stronger unions, higher wages, plus socialists, communists and labor parties emerging in the 1930s and especially after World War II, are the exact reasons why the US implemented the Marshall Plan, why we have NATO and these overt and covert interventions in Greece and Turkey and Italy, not to mention Saudi Arabia, Iran, Guyana, Guatemala and so forth.

This postwar settlement that laid the foundation for a neoliberal turn, which made the US dollar the currency of the world and created the World Bank and IMF, was responding to global ruptures. In other words, when we talk about structural inequality, it’s not just a matter of a structure. It’s always responding to a product of these struggles; the struggle to preserve colonialism, the struggle to resist it, and what these struggles produced, both within the United States and around the globe. They help explain the outcome of the inequalities we have. They’re not fixed, but a product of this constant give and take.

Bruce Robbins

I agree that when you face the many different inequalities it gets very confusing, and people share a lot of confusion about it. It can look just like a humanitarian scandal: “How come we over here have all this and other people over there don’t?” If you tell the history the way Robin tells it, a lot of the confusion dissipates. You need a phrase like the “development of underdevelopment,” instead of looking at the underdeveloped and saying, “Well, these people have always been poor, maybe it’s our obligation to do something to help them.” If you think that the developed countries did the underdeveloping, it all looks a little different. That kind of causal relationship was what I was trying to get at in the book “The Beneficiary,” instead of thinking about this in humanitarian terms (as in: I’m a human, they’re humans, or I have X more dollars than they do, I have more to eat and they have less, etc., maybe as a human, I should do something.)

“I go around looking for little slogans that carry people beyond just a humanitarian consciousness of inequality.”

It really looks different if you think there’s a causal relationship between your prosperity and them not having anything to eat. That was the premise of my particular contribution to this. I go around looking for little slogans that can grip people, that can stick in people’s memory, that will make this sense of causal relationship really vivid and carry people beyond just a humanitarian consciousness of inequality. One that Robin knows better than I do is “No Manchester without Mississippi.” So, we think about the Industrial Revolution in Manchester in the North of England and what a miracle it was. But what the historians have said is that you don’t get the Industrial Revolution in Manchester without slavery in Mississippi. The whole thing doesn’t work otherwise. If people thought of it that way, I think they would look at the inequalities of the world very differently than they do. Not just that it’s scandalous, but that their life depends on this history, which, of course, is ongoing.

It’s not just ancient history, it’s happening right now, right?

Check out the whole conversation here!

[Title image by M. Jeremy Goldman via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0]

The Editors

Articles signed by the editors were written in a collective effort.

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