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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 6

People’s Struggles for Equality in Society

Saturday 26 January 2008, by Arun Kumar


The most important religions and philosophies talk of equality between people. Yet, equality is hardly the defining feature of even those societies that are influenced by such ideas. In fact, over time, most societies have moved towards accepting the idea that we have to live with growing inequality. In the past thirty years material inequality has grown to reach levels seen earlier in the 1930s. India is a land of extreme contrasts with the second highest number of billionaires and the largest number of the poorest in the world.

The rich societies have seen a persistence of poverty even though they have the wherewithal to eliminate it. Given that citizens in these societies do not object to their fellow citizens living in degrading forms of human existence, acceptance of the lesser evil, namely, inequality, becomes easier.

In the developing societies the idea of inequality becomes even more acceptable since the rulers plead helplessness on the ground that society is poor and resources are inadequate. The elite in these societies whose life-style depends on the existence of the poor and of inequality do little about it. They suggest that trickle down will resolve the problem at some future date; so nothing needs to be done now. They argue that higher growth will do the trick sooner but for that they should get more concessions to become richer. The Yuppie class, self-absorbed in getting rich quickly, sees nothing wrong in it. Hence, poverty and inequality are structural and can only be understood in a holistic perspective which is presented below.

Philosophically, all citizens are born equal with the same social potentialities that anyone else has but it is in terms of their social existence that people become unequal. Even if there are natural differences amongst different people, it depends on society to decide whether they would be treated as equal or if unequally, how unequal. The dominant/elite/ruling sections decide on who gets what status and for their own benefit create hierarchies. This is justified as a natural state of affairs to lend legitimacy to their view of society. Even their sense of justice is based/defined on this hierarchical view or notion of society.

Can society automatically achieve equity or equality? Can it be a natural state of society? The answer to these questions are linked to the nature/state of society, its institutions and its sense of justice. The prevailing notion of justice in a society emerges from the ideological hegemony of the rulers and is such as to help consolidate its hold further. Even the oppressed or the victims of the system largely consider it to be ‘just’ and accept it. For instance, in the present-day male-dominated world, successful women also adopt the male- centric values of society and perhaps consider this to be the natural state of affairs.

The features affecting society’s attitudes or understanding of equality are not just economic but social, political, cultural, linguistic, ecological and so on. Thus, any change in social attitudes towards equality requires widespread and basic change in all these aspects of society’s existence and this implies a change in the social consciousness. Only movements and struggles can bring this about, not even the good intentions of the rulers can succeed in this. For instance, the failure of the environmental movement over decades is because it has not yet succeeded in checking consumerism. Education can play a large role in change but currently it largely helps replicate the existing system with its entrenched inequality. It is clear that if change comes it has to be despite what those in power want. Thus, struggles and resistance are absolutely at the heart of basic social change.

II. Nature of Growing Inequalities

WHILE inequality has many dimensions, today it is taken to refer predominantly to the material aspect. The world over, material inequality has both fallen and risen. Inter-country differences in per capita incomes have mostly narrowed with many of the former colonies doing well, especially since the mid-seventies. However, in most of the countries of the world, distribution has worsened. Both these facts taken together suggest that inequality is not inevitable and has a social basis. For instance, in the colonial period, it was due to the prevailing social conditions and little to do with any natural causes. Currently, it is due to the neo-liberal agenda being followed all over the world under the influence of International Finance Capital.

It is a feature of capitalism that inequality becomes the cause of more of it. Since, progress is seen to depend on the actions of the elite, they demand more concessions from society and when they get them, disparities widen. Belief in the welfare state has been replaced by an exclusivist and elitist model of development. The situation is aggravated by the market fundamentalism of ‘dollar vote’ and the associated marginalisation of the marginal in the market processes. In capitalism, the biggest inequality is between wages and profits. As capital gets concentrated in fewer hands and/or labour gets weakened, the degree of monopoly rises and this is what has happened in the recent period. The consequence is growing inequality.

An important distinction needs to be made between ‘markets’ and ‘marketisation of society’. While the former has been there for long, the latter is a recent phenomenon. Its consequence is that the deepest feelings people had of emotions, sense of community and togetherness are weakening and being replaced by alienation and atomisation and people are reduced to being no more than sophisticated machines. For instance, the noble profession medicine in its modern version does not treat a person as a whole but as parts and dehumanised. Modern education calls people a resource, much like minerals—basically, as a prerequisite for production. Education is referred to as Human Resource Development.

The feeling of guilt and self-doubt is a cost in a profit-maximising world and therefore needs to be minimised. Thus, the elite need not feel bad or responsible for the existence of poverty or inequality. When ‘more is better’, then sacrifice is stupidity; so one can unabashedly be self-centred. But, family, society, etc. are institutions that demand sacrifice to build them but since this value has taken a severe beating, they face a crisis. Those suggesting that man is strong are the ones that work to weaken him the most. The argument is trotted out only to reduce social intervention and prepare the ground for them to exploit the people even more easily.

The growing black economy and illegality are anti-social in character. They are eating away the innards of society, like termites. In India, the black economy is currently estimated to be around 50 per cent of the GDP. It is so huge that it has to be both systematic and systemic. It is concentrated in the hands of three per cent of Indians and results in huge inequality. It makes social action difficult by increasing the alienation of individuals.

Is material progress the only yardstick of progress? Market managers do not necessarily promote a feeling of satisfaction and contentedness amongst the individuals. Hence the material aspect of existence is often disjointed from happiness. Further, an economistic view of society results in short-termism based on ‘here and now’. In contrast, society has to contend with the long run. Such disjuncture between the long run of society (and existence itself) and short-termism of the individual is proving to be disastrous for humankind.

These economic aspects of our present-day attitudes regarding inequality in society are reinforced by various features of our present day science and technology. No doubt, while it creates material prosperity it also leads to growing inequality due to differential access. Like in the case of information technology and the pitfalls of the growing digital divide. Bio-technology is creating the possibility of making people unequal and this is a deeply disturbing trend. Today technology dominates over Man like never before and reinforces the belief that it can provide all the solutions so that action at the social plane is irrelevant. Thus, in a wide variety of ways it is resulting both in atomisation and the narrowing of horizons.

The growing cultural gap is reinforcing inequality. Mass culture is being guided by fewer and fewer firms and by commercial interests, marginalising the majority and making them passive recipients. This is limiting the originality of the common people and reducing their spontaneity due to growing passivity amongst them. Even what has been holy or sacred is no more so. The Ganga and Godavari are highly polluted but people are not reacting. What fixed points, except commerce and money, does modern Man believe in?

The linguistic aspect of inequality is no less important. Today, we have to contend with the domination of English and the gap it creates between the English educated elite and the rest. Many languages are close to extinction globally with severe effect on people’s identity and their cultures.

The degradation of the environment is leading to a widening of disparities and to growing poverty in the midst of material well-being. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate and pointing to the impending natural disasters. Global warming, natural disasters and new diseases are on the rise. The impact of each of these factors is disproportionately more on the poor.

Societies, and specially their rich, are using a significant per cent of the Earth’s resources so that conflict of various kinds (specially on control over resources) are on the rise. The few can continue to consume more only if a majority remain deprived. So, the rulers suppress the weak and turn authoritarian. Corporates are eying cheap minerals and labour in the developing world. People do not count. Anything can be marketised to gain control over it—people, like the triblas or the local ones do not matter. The use of the state is important for success to overcome resistance, say, in the case of mega projects. The corporate sector is using the state to get hold of a large amount of resources (like land for SEZs) which it may not be able to get on its own. The government has become India Pvt. Ltd.

The historical dimension of any change is important. People are not automatons but historically conditioned so that social change is typically slow. Further, societies in the developing world are disrupted societies. Presently Iraq and Afghanistan are visibly so and earlier the entire colonised world was in this category. Disruption has a long lasting effect because it links the elite of the ruler and the ruled. Influences come from the outside so that society as a whole loses dynamism. The knowledge base and the social understanding become dependent on that in the advanced world and thinkers are reduced to being derived intellectuals. Accountability of the system is to the structures outside (like the IMF and World Bank) and not to the people so the gap between the ruler and the ruled has remained large even after attaining political independence.

In brief, inequality is not just economic but multi-dimensional both in its manifestation and its causes. However, the penetration of the economic aspect into every other feature of social existence is complicating the picture even more than earlier.

III. Nature of Movements and Resistance Today

DO movements occur spontaneously? When and how do they come up? What is their nature? An understanding of this requires a sociological, political and historical study. Movements have a two-way link to bring about a change in consciousness in society. For instance, in recent times one has witnessed changes in attitudes due to movements, like the communist, socialist, nationalist, women’s, Blacks in the USA, Dalits in India, anti-apartheid in South Africa, anti- nuclear, environmental and religious movements.

A possible hierarchy in movements has to be recognised. Some lead to basic changes in the belief systems of society but not others. A crisis in society may or may not lead to successful movements. Consequently, problems may simmer for long periods. There is no inevitability that change would occur. Hence, there is need for consistent action by people for successful movements.

The 150th anniversary of India’s first war of independence is over and independence was gained sixty years back, but one is witness to major movements, like in Nandigram, around SEZs and displacement, like at Narmada. The Maoist movement has gathered strength and forced the PM to say that it is the single biggest challenge to the Indian state.

Lack of responsiveness of the political system often leads to protest and movements. This is being compounded by a growing sense of injustice due to the failures of the judicial system and its recent turn towards a more Rightwing framework. However, there is some hope from the Dalit and the women’s movements. But this positivity needs moderation due to the growing corruption and the decline of the democratic institutions. Further, it needs to be tempered by a lack of clarity amongst these movements on the nature of society they want.

Today, the political parties appear as impediments to improvements in democracy. They are seen to be closely associated with vested interests. Democracy has become formalistic. Voting is not a genuine choice to the people. The two- party system in the US or UK or the system in India is not giving people genuine choices. Parties are like vote-getting machines in India and abroad. These factors by discrediting democracy add to the difficulty of initiating movements. There is lack of trust in the leaders and the parties. If this state of affairs is to change in the future, alternatives need to be spelt out. Thus, democratic change and alternatives are crucially inter-linked.

Difficulties in organising movements, collective actions and resistance are growing. This is a result of the narrowing of horizons and the accelerating process of atomisation of individuals and marketisation of social processes as discussed earlier. The social is in retreat since it is characterised as ‘subjective’ while the marketisation process considered as ‘objective’, is advancing.

A particular difficulty confronting people today is that in the process of globalisation, there is no global society creating global movements. So, many of the global movements, like the WSF, have limited strength. In the early nineties the movements in the developing world against the Dunkel Draft in the context of the creation of the WTO failed. The movements to check environmental degradation have had limited success. The global society is divided between various categories of the rich and the poor. For instance, the labour movement has to confront the labour aristocracy at the global level or the divide between the organised and the unorganised. Even the nature of poverty differs across countries.

Today capital is mobile but labour is not. This has given strength to the former and weakened the latter. The TU movement everywhere has weakened. In the US its membership has dropped from 25 per cent of workers in the private sector in the seventies to seven per cent now.

People now do not have the right to choose their path of development. International Finance Capital is deciding the path of development. The local elite is aiding it and acting as its local agent. It is willing to compromise the nation’s sovereignty since it sees no use for it. It has done so in several steps as Manmohan Sigh’s actions since 1991 bear out. This implies a highly truncated democracy. Legislature, judiciary, bureaucracy and the police are a part of this process of erosion. The Social Contract has been shattered. The state with a monopoly over violence is using it with a heavy hand to break up struggles and movements.

IV. Conclusion

SOCIETY has a civilising aspect and even if there are natural differences amongst individuals, society can overcome them because of the potentiality of social thought and social organisation. Civilised societies protect their weak since they realise the potential of each citizen. Today this idea confronts ‘marketisation’ which is taking society in the opposite direction and posing problems for collective action and movements.

Altruism is basic to people. This is being denied in the race for competition. Youth is robbed of its best years and atomised. Its idealism and energy are being turned into cynicism. Those very structures of society that proclaim that Man is strong and should be left free are the ones that weaken him the most for their own narrow needs. All this works not just at the economic plane but also through culture, science and technology, media, etc., so that inequality is reinforced in various interlocked ways and must be tackled at all these levels.

Growing cynicism and narrowness of thought are leading society to lose its innocence and turning the individuals into mere shells having lost the emotional depth they had and are increasingly being treated as sophisticated machines. In brief, the very factors resulting in growing inequality are also making it difficult to organise movements for achieving equality.

Movements and struggles for equality based on alternatives are required and Gandhi provided a possible route to it through the idea of the ‘Last Person First’. He remains relevant even in the present materialistic world. Groups working with people have to come together around this. They can fail at their own peril and that would let the people down.
[Based on the author’s presentation at the Inaugural Session of the XXXI Indian Social Science Congress (SNDT University, Mumbai, December 27, 2007)]

Dr Arun Kumar is a Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at

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