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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 42, New Delhi, October 2, 2021

We are 99% | Banhi Baran Ghosh

Friday 1 October 2021


by Banhi Baran Ghosh *


The issue of Inequality seems to be kept in limbo in the democratic practice of this country contrary to its counterpart in the West, nonetheless, the problems emanating from inequality, having varied dimensions, have never been kept out of the purview and introspection of the eminent thinkers. This article makes an attempt to explore the underlying accounts of inequality articulated by eminent thinkers and the reasons thereof of the resilience of the society at the persistence of inequality of different kinds while concentrating alongside on the necessity for not leaving it uncared for.


In whatever form it is, inequality is a menace, be that inequality of income or wealth — it makes a dent on the social fabric. Indian democracy is exposed to a legacy of scaffolding nonchalance towards persistent inequality. When a country is already enamoured by the scourge of inequality, any catastrophe is likely to provide spur to it and this happens at the outbreak of this pandemic. Thus it is stultifying to adore, as it happens nowadays, in the media, when, at times, surging inequality during this pandemic is reported.

Inequality is not a historical process, it is an offspring of the policies pursued and implemented by the government and the introduction of new components in the economic system consequent upon these policies.

When a protest movement against inequality called Occupy Wall Street took place in September, 2011 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s Wall Street financial district, we are informed (Yates, 2021) that a galaxy of liberal economists supported this movement being present there. We also have in this respect the remarks of Joseph Stiglitz to the occupiers, “You are right to be indignant. The fact is that the system is not working right. It is not right that we have so many people without jobs when we have so many needs that we have to fulfill. It’s not right that we are throwing people out of their houses when we have so many homeless people. Our financial markets have an important role to play. They’re supposed to allocate capital, manage risks. . We are bearing the costs of their misdeeds.

There’s a system where we’ve socialized losses and privatized gains. That’s not capitalism; that’s not a market economy. That’s a distorted economy, and if we continue with that, we won’t succeed in growing, and we won’t succeed in creating a just society”(Yates 2011). Yates, then, lambasted against the rhetoric the system is not working right and affirmed that it was working in line with what the capitalist system adhered to.

This vindicates an account for the alternative explanations for inequality.

Alternative explanations 

The first line of Rousseau’s Social Contract is ‘Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains’. These ‘chains’ pertain to dependence, violence, unrest and inequality. According to Rousseau, in the kingdom of nature man was in peace and somehow in fear. He was alone and free. However he soon realised that it would be better to move into cooperation for serving mutual interest. From this realization took shape a different kind of relation, but the crucial stage set forth when man started living in hut and that that was the origin of embryonic society. By virtue of living in society there arose a kind of dependence. Subsequently, created were the differences in regard to power, wealth and status by virtue of the existence of private property and division of labour. Though man thought that he would be free while living in society, in fact he lost his freedom and therefore, Rousseau was confident that inequality stemmed from ‘corrupt mutual dependence’ that was the binding element of society.

 After more than hundred years, though Karl Marx did not initiate any constructive analysis of inequality, but while discussing the Law of Capitalist Accumulation in the first volume of Capital he mentioned “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole”. He was certain that in the context of the right to property the basis of capitalism was primitive inequality which gained momentum through primitive accumulation.

We should not forget one thing and that is no less important. In order to construct Critique of Political Economy and Capital Marx prepared a huge text that was published later on in erstwhile Russia during 1939- 41 under the title Grundrisse. A section of it is titled Pre-capitalist Economic Formations. In it Marx discussed the problem of historical evolution in the pre-capitalist stage. This paved the origin of the primitive accumulation. In the commune system, which was called Asiatic Mode of Production, labor was the owner of his labour-power and at the same time exercised the right to the means of production. In other words, ‘worker has an objective existence independent of labour. The individual is related to himself as a proprietor, as master of the conditions of his reality.’ But in course of time, at the onslaught of ‘Oriental Despotism’, the labour was dissociated from the ownership of natural resources which, later on, strengthened the accumulation process under capitalism.

At the beginning of the 21st century Thomas Piketty’s voluminous work Capital in the 21st Century was published. In a wide spectrum he analysed how inequality of money and wealth all over the globe would engender a severe crisis for the large section of the population. He unveiled the nature of inequality with the help of data accumulated for a large number of countries for a long period of time supplemented by the laws of economics. However, the pivotal point of his discussion was confined to how the families having massive accumulated wealth through inheritance occupied the upper layer of the income distribution and Piketty posited this analysis at the wide historical perspective.

In the last year when he published Capital and Ideology, the entire polemics headed towards a complete circle. In this book he states unequivocally that the inequality has not been caused by the technological or economical reasons- its root lies deeper in ideology and politics. He coined the term inequality regime and revealed the trend of this regime in different perspectives. By inequality regime he wanted to mean justification of the structure of inequality and institutions. Institutional structure includes legal, education and fiscal systems. These systems intend to maintain equality or inequality at a certain level. From the discussion of the history of inequality regime across different regions and countries it becomes apparent that this regime had undergone so many changes and alterations. In some places the change came rapidly through revolution such as it happened during the French Revolution. On the other hand, if we concentrate on Sweden a different perspective unfolds.

At the beginning of the 20th century the country experienced an intense inequality but with the help of trade unions and social democratic parties as the move towards social solidarity succeeded the country started experiencing the highest level of equality achieved ever in other countries of the world. At this critical point it is difficult for one to abstain from quoting at length from the Capital and Ideology “Every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse. Every epoch therefore develops a range of contradictory discourses and ideologies for the purpose of legitimizing the inequality that already exists or that people believe should exist. From these discourses emerge certain economic, social, and political rules, which people then use to make sense of the ambient social structure. Out of the clash of contradictory discourses—a clash that is at once economic, social, and political—comes a dominant narrative or narratives, which bolster the existing inequality regime”.

There prevails a kind of tolerance to this kind inequality which ultimately takes deep root in society and in that case the task is to identify the root of this tolerance and take necessary steps to uproot it. The movement initiated in this direction would provide a hint as to who is awake and where.

Prof Partha Dasgupta, in his book ‘Economics: a very short introduction’, has told us a story of two girls. At that time when the book was written they were girls and now probably they are ladies. We do not have any idea about how are they doing now and also we do not know whether they exist in reality or part of imagination of the author. However, as a student of economics, it is difficult to avoid the flavour of the story.

One girl was Becky who used to live in a suburban area of the middle east of America. She was then ten years (year of publication of the book was 2007).She belonged to a family which included along with her, her elder brother and parents. Her father was appointed in a Law Firm and his annual income was then $145000. Their house was two-storied with four bedrooms, two washrooms, one large drawing-cum-dining room, a room for the family in the basement. Becky used to go to school by bicycle in order to do no further harm to environment.

The other girl was Desta similarly aged ten years. She used to live in a hut in the south-west of tropical Ethiopia along with her parents and five siblings. Her father cultivated corn and terff in half an acre of land provided by the government. In a small plot of land besides the hut her mother used to cultivate cauliflower, onions and enset. Since besides carrying on cultivation she had to look after her family, she used to be preoccupied for fourteen hours of the day. In spite of that since she failed to manage everything, Desta and her elder sister had to extend help to their mother. One of the brothers of Desta studied in school but no other members of the family were fortunate to go to school. There was no provision of water in the house and naturally water had to be fetched from far off, the family was plagued with diseases, since cultivation was dependent mainly on rainfall, the family quite often suffered from hunger in times of paucity of rain.

Prof. Dasgupta laments that we are, as if, are rendered helpless to endure with the differences of living of the two girls in different parts of the globe. Characteristically, there are basically no differences between the two girls in terms of human nature. Both of them love gossiping, playing, eating; are tied to their families, whenever they are hurt they used to run to their mothers, both fall in despair, frustration, get annoyed and enjoy in a similar fashion, but both are involved in different ways of living. If one has to explore the causes for the differences of living of these two girls one ends up with vast dissimilarities of opportunities and impediments facing them and the scope of this inequality is vast which cannot be grasped in terms of the prevailing pattern of economic inequality. Intermingled with the differences of opportunities and impediments is the variation of capabilities of which Prof. Amartya Sen has contributed enormously and profoundly.

Apathetic Indian Democracy

Kapoor and Yadav (2020) lamented that no public discontentment against inequality has been observed to the scale of mass demonstration that was witnessed in the case of corruption in 2011 and that was reflected in the ballot box. However it was rightly observed by them that inequality mattered cogently in 2019 General Elections when the issue of income transfer loomed large in the political discourse. In the National Election Study, 2019, for the first time, among other criterion, Economic Inequality was included in the question ‘(If voted) what was the most important issue for you while voting in this election?’ and 0.4 percent of the respondents had been affirmative in favour of economic inequality while 2.7 percent found poverty as the main issue. In 2014 the criterion was put differently as ‘Poverty/rich-poor gap/neglect of poor’ and 1.9 percent had been in favour of it. In 2009, 63.6 percent agreed with the statement in the Post-poll Study ‘It is important that the government should make Special Schemes to uplift the poor and disadvantaged’. Given these scant appearance of inequality as an issue in the democratic practice it is necessary to gauge the extent to which society is content with the existing level of redistribution. This involves a separate discourse; however, certain points may be summed up:

Kapoor and Yadav (2020) sought an explanation in line with arguments given by Scitovsky and Hirschman and in terms of cascading effect generated through the rise of income of a particular class whose spending on ‘ride-hailing’ and e-commerce services make room for people in lower stratum of income distribution to help ease earning and thus they remain content with the existing pattern of distribution. This analysis eschewed to provide reason for the ineffectiveness of democratic practices that brush aside the surging inequality in the society. Given the limited scope and space, here, it cannot be comprehended; however, a few points may be summed up:

First, competitive elections are not sufficient for democracy, elections, be it fare and universal, may lead to dictatorship of the elected few or majority in which case the agenda for election campaign or election strategy would be dictated by this majority.

Secondly, in India, inequality of opportunity is determined by inequality of land distribution, inequality of educational opportunity and inequality of social status (Bardhan, 2015). To build consensus on curbing inequality in distribution of land is quite difficult since it involves encroachment of the rights of those people whom no political party would dare to advance. In India, most of the wealthy people are fond of sending their children to private institutions at the primary, secondary and higher secondary levels. They do not bother about improving the government-run schools which, in turn, remain content with lackluster performance in terms of infrastructural and other bottlenecks improvement of which are necessary for accommodating children having low status. Inequality occurring in respect of social status in India is marked by caste hierarchy in which case the voice of an Adivasi or a Dalit is inhibited.

Thirdly, when the government embarks on administering doles to the disadvantaged in different forms they are content with this since they do not have the perception of what inequality is and how it hinders their upliftment.

Lastly, we are familiar with Amartya Sen incessantly harping on the role of public reasoning in effectuating the proper functioning of democracy. We also know how in preventing the occurrence of famines the functioning of democracy plays its role. But how does it work? In Dreze and Sen(2013) we get a nice exposition which may be quoted “It is important to remember that the number of famine victims as a proportion of the population is typically quite small(usually no more that 5 percent and hardly ever more than 10 percent of the total population( and if the affected or threatened population were the only people to be moved by the importance and urgency of famine prevention( in line with their self- interest), then electoral outcomes would not be very sensitive to this priority. It is through public discussion that people in general-not just a famine-threatened minority-come to understand the urgency of preventing a famine and also appreciate that famine can be stopped by prompt public intervention. And it is because of public reasoning combined with regular and free elections that the non-prevention of famines becomes an electoral nightmare for the ruling government in a functioning democracy, inducing it to take quick preventive action whenever a famine threatens”. One paragraph after this we have “...the limitation of public reasoning can restrain the reach of democracy both by impairing an adequate understanding of the nature and extent of the inequalities and deprivations in the country, and by confining public action to an unnecessarily narrow domain. Politics then tends to be dominated by an excessive focus on a relatively small part of the population whose lives and problems are much discussed and constantly aired in the public media”.


 Quite often the thinkers at various levels try to make us vigilant in regard to how and to what extent the prevalence of inequality at various strata of the society bring forth for the greater section a deplorable condition. It is not difficult to imagine how with the soaring inequality, the growing differences between people at various levels beget for the society a greater anathema. No matter whether it is eradication of poverty or solving the problem of unemployment- neither becomes successful without proper understanding of the nature of and causes for inequality.

 World Economic Forum published in 2020 the Global Social Mobility Report 2020. When an adult person finds that while moving from one state to another in society he is better off than his past generation or in his lifetime he is better off than before then social mobility is reported to have occurred. However, in this context, the important thing is the concept of relative mobility. If, in a society, a person being born in low-income family has the opportunity to earn at par with the person brought up in high-income family then it may be inferred that the society has undergone a complete relative mobility. India ranked seventy six in the ranking of the eighty two countries following the Global Social Mobility Index. Global Inequality Report of 2018 says that in this country top ten percent of the high income families enjoy the right to fifty percent of the gross income which is comparable only to Sub-Saharan Africa and Brazil.

Soaring inequality and social mobility being deadlocked- the twin blades have subverted the significant part of the population. In order to get rid of this dilemma first it should be decided whether it is at all any problem. Thinkers, intellectuals are vibrant enough regarding the issue but whether their words, advices would be reflected in the implementation of the government policies depends on how far the other components of the State, mainly, social institution, media and political structure become active and vigilant.

‘We are 99%’ was the slogan in Occupy Wall Street movement. Let us wait for such a slogan in the Indian politics. Days are gone in siesta - now it is time to wake up- let us watch who would wake and where.

* (Associate Professor, Economics, Sreegopal Banerjee College, Bagati, Magra, Hooghly, West Bengal)


1. Bardhan, P (2015). Gobalisation, Democracy and Corruption. Frontpage.
2. Dreze, J & Sen, A.(2013). An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. Penguin Books.
3. Kapoor, A & Yadav, C (2021, March 15).The Missing Politics of Inequality. The Economic Times.
4. Yates, M. D. (2021, September 16). Occupy Wall Street and the Celebrity Economists.

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