Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Encroaching inequality

When modernization enters a phase of maturity and the middle classes can grow no further, as is now the case in the West, equality of opportunity becomes a trap

Are we headed for an upsurge of inequality in our society? Are we watching a progressive normalization, a tolerance, a legitimization of social inequalities? This seems to be in the air, when we hear that the "Social-Liberal" coalition government in the Netherlands is talking about dismantling the welfare state.

The crisis has caused a sharp drop in wages, while at the same time jobs are being lost and all sorts of social services are being cut back, causing a considerable fall in household income.

Meanwhile, professional and corporate incomes in the sectors most involved in globalization have grown spectacularly, widening the stratified range of personal income. The distance in purchasing power between an ever-richer elite and an ever-poorer populace is growing quickly, while the fiscal instruments of redistribution are shrinking along with fiscal pressure. The consequence is the enrichment of the minority that is managing the crisis, while most of the population loses social status. And while this brutal fact is at odds with the democratic ideal of equality, the upsurge of inequality is passively accepted by the public, who interpret it as the effect of an exceptional crisis.

Equal-opportunity policies have certain counterproductive effects

For François Dubet, whose work on social justice is required reading, social inequality can be seen in two different, albeit related, dimensions. On the one hand, in terms of present social positions, such as the inequality between degree-holding professionals and manual workers. And on the other, in terms of starting points of origin, as between native and immigrant families. In order to reduce social inequality, we can opt for policies to equalize either starting-point conditions, or present ones, or both. But we tend to prefer one to the other.

Social-democratic policy tries to reduce inequality in present conditions by means of progressive taxation and redistribution. Liberal policy tends more to reduce starting-line inequality by means of affirmative action, educational grants and so on. In the crisis, the former has been practically annulled by the exponential increase in inequality of income. The space for the latter (equal-opportunity policies) is growing ever narrower.

But as Dubet points out, equal-opportunity policies have certain counterproductive effects. They convert the problem of inequality into meritocratic competition for restricted access to the most unequal and selective positions: that is, into an ever more crowded rat race for social ascent. A race that is soon saturated, so that equality of opportunities becomes a game of musical chairs - which works only when there are enough chairs for the people who want them. This is what is happening in the modernization taking place in China and other emerging countries, when the universalization of schooling favors the ascent of peasant and worker children toward a society of new middle classes.

But when modernization enters a phase of maturity and the middle classes can grow no further, as is now the case in the West, equality of opportunity becomes a trap. There being not enough privileged posts for everyone, ever more are called and ever fewer are chosen. Now the race only generates rivalry and competition, while the losers sink into resentment and lose status. A war arises, driven by social envy and relative privation, the keynotes being possessive individualism, sectarian identities, mutual distrust and conflictive polarization. The aggregate result is a geometrical growth of social inequality, which comes to be seen as normal and legitimate, in the sacrosanct name of competitiveness. This is the neoliberal nightmare into which the American dream has degenerated. And the only solution to avoid this contradiction is to opt for equality of present positions, as Dubet recommends. This demands a restoration of progressive redistribution of income as the only way to recover our social cohesion, reciprocal confidence, sense of solidarity, the respect for common identities, and collective participation in defense of the general interest.

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