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Fault Lines and Front Lines: Shifting Power in an Unequal World

31 Oct 2018

Fault Lines and Front Lines: Shifting Power in an Unequal World
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization, launched to coincide with the UNRISD Conference of the same name. In this series, experts from academia, advocacy and policy practice critically explore the various causes of deepening inequalities in the current context, their implications for sustainable development, and strategies and mechanisms being employed to reverse them. These contributions are part of the global conversation on inequalities leading up to the review of Sustainable Development Goal 10 at the UN High-Level Political Forum in July 2019.

Economic and social inequalities have grown within and between countries over recent decades, with the growing divide between the privileged and the rest fracturing society in new and more dramatic ways. In a context where governments have agreed to redouble efforts to address inequalities as part of their commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, this introductory think piece to the UNRISD series Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization raises questions around the drivers and consequences of inequalities, and how people, communities, social relationships and institutions are shifting, adapting and innovating in response to them.

Katja Hujo is Senior Research Coordinator and Maggie Carter is Research Analyst at UNRISD.

Telling a new story about inequality

Inequality as a social, political and development issue has risen towards the top of public agendas, with its damaging impacts on social, environmental and economic sustainability and its link to poverty, insecurity, crime and xenophobia now widely demonstrated and acknowledged (Oxfam 2018, Piketty 2014). Yet debates about how best to overcome it often spark heated controversy. On the one hand, conventional development approaches rarely acknowledge the root causes of inequality or pinpoint responsible actors, instead blaming agentless processes such as globalization or free market competition for undesired social outcomes and hardships in an effort to avoid polarizing public debates and provoking the so-called politics of envy. Despite the renewed interest in inequality and the inclusion of a stand-alone Goal on inequalities (SDG 10: “Reduce inequality within and among countries”) in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an achievement to which UNRISD research has contributed in recent decades (UNRISD 2005, UNRISD 2010), the continuous focus on the poorest of the poor and the lack of attention being paid to the drivers of inequality and structures that reproduce and reinforce it do not bode well for achieving the aspirations of “inclusive growth”, “shared prosperity” and “leaving no one behind” laid out in the 2030 Agenda.

On the other side of the spectrum, in 2011 the Occupy Wall Street movement created a new narrative for how we talk about inequality, that of the 1% and the 99%. By pointing to the massive disparity represented in these numbers and juxtaposing these two groups as forces positioned against each other, it made a clear argument: inequalities we are facing globally, regionally, nationally and locally are not a natural and unavoidable reality of our world order, but rather a result of entrenched power structures and global economic systems in which a select few, the 1%, have highly disproportionate control over and access to resources, a situation which is reinforced by the current economic order which distributes gains towards capital owners to the detriment of labour and the environment. While such inequalities are not new, they are growing more dramatic, girded by neoliberal policies and compounded by a number of factors: corporate capture of political processes and state institutions, lax global and national tax governance, rapid technological expansion, and the erosion of labour rights, to name but a few.

While this new narrative has permeated popular parlance, the power of the 99% to reverse these forces is more compromised than ever. Indeed, as institutions representing the public good and universal values are increasingly disempowered or co-opted, visions of social justice and equity are sidelined. While progressive tides strengthened social contracts around the globe after the Second World War, forging a consensus between capital and labour that led to a combination of productivity growth, social justice and provision of public goods, in the present day we are seeing a breakdown of such contracts. Many states are reducing social spending as part of austerity measures, rolling back rights and protections and doling them out to corporations, supplanting meaningful spaces of civic engagement with divisive populist rhetoric, and hacking up and selling off the commons to the highest bidder, making use, more than ever, of walls—be they physical or rhetorical—to drive the wedge even further between two vastly different worlds.

The growing divide

As a result, society is fracturing in ways that are becoming more and more tangible, with the growing divide between the privileged and the rest dramatically rearranging both macro structures and local lifeworlds. These cleavages erode social cohesion, citizenship practices and trust in public institutions, leaving deep fault lines that manifest economically, politically, socially and spatially. As a consequence, governments are increasingly perceived to lack the capacity to foster inclusive development and to protect the well-being and rights of their citizens in a rapidly changing and increasingly uncertain world.

And while such spaces for progressive change have been closed, new ones are constrained by a range of factors: governments with a developmental and redistributive stance are increasingly stripped of resources and policy space in the context of neoliberal globalization and recurrent crises; middle classes are either moving towards precarity or increasingly aligned with elite interests, opting out of processes for the public good, motivated by various incentives including political stability, security and access to better life opportunities; identity groups among popular and middle classes consistently fail to mobilize around deeply shared interests, and are instead pitted against each other by nationalist and xenophobic discourses; the voice of the demos has begun to weigh less and less as the overwhelming economic dominance of elite sectors takes hold of political processes; and while recent social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, Indignados, Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo Campaign, have sprung up out of reinterpreted visions of citizenship, their long-term political impact is still an issue of inquiry (Fraser 2013).

What to expect in the think piece series

This UNRISD think piece series will explore the sites of fracture wrought by inequality—the fault lines—and the sites of struggle where those in power come face to face with those working for a more just future—the front lines. This series is the first output of the UNRISD project Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World, comprising an international conference in November 2018 and a subsequent cross-country comparative research project. Resolutely interdisciplinary, the series will explore rising inequalities in the context of global shifts and compounding crises. Specifically, think pieces will examine institutional processes, asking which ones create space for marginalized actors to have a slice of the pie, and which ones create a barrier across which certain kinds of actors cannot move. They will explore the changing world of work and its reverberations throughout society, asking how workers are navigating more and more precarious forms of employment. They will interrogate the role of elites, how they relate to each other and to other social groups, and what consequences their ever-growing influence has, from local communities to global society. They will take us into homes and neighbourhoods, zeroing in on those spaces where inequalities come to a head most visibly. From urban slums, to border zones, to elite enclaves, to urban planning offices, to the front lines of struggles for necessities as basic as water, their insights reveal how growing fractures have eroded social cohesion and the practice of citizenship, leaving rights even farther out of reach for many.

But beyond the question of the impacts of inequalities, the think pieces in this series will ask how people, communities, social relations and institutions are shifting and adapting in response, and what consequences this has for the possibility of progressive change. What new economic arrangements are emerging as neoliberal capitalism has eroded livelihoods? What new forms of citizenship are taking shape in this age of both increased mobility (both literal and virtual, made possible by vast technological expansion) and greater restriction, as borders tighten and public space is closed out? How are class structures and identities shifting, and what do these shifts imply for the possibility of progressive alliances for social change? And finally, what new forms of mobilization are materializing out of these shifts seeking to level out social stratification and devolve power and resources from elites to non-elites, and what tools and knowledge can they draw on?

The larger UNRISD inquiry of which this think piece series is part aims to make its own contribution to this mobilization, seeking to bring new ideas to the fore and connect thinkers across geographic, disciplinary, sectoral and linguistic boundaries. In doing so, it will ask, as forces gather at the front lines of social struggle, what space there is for progressive change, despite all the odds stacked against it, to reverse the current course and move towards equality and justice.

Fraser, Nancy. 2013. “A triple movement?” New Left Review, 81:119-132.
Oxfam International. 2018. "Reward Work, Not Wealth." Oxfam Briefing Paper. Oxford: Oxfam GB.
Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development). 2005. Gender Inequality: Striving for Justice in an Unequal World. Geneva: UNRISD.
UNRISD (United Nations Research Institute for Social Development). 2010. Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics. Geneva: UNRISD.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.