Inequality is the defining theme of the left-right political spectrum—going back to the time of the French revolution, when the supporters of liberté, égalité, fraternité sat on the left side of the first Assemblée nationale. Those on the left have always argued that capitalism tends to engender economic inequality, which can be challenged by collective social and democratic political action. Those on the right have contended that inequalities are just the product of natural differences between individuals or social groups which should not be the subject of interference.
Inequality matters today. The health of populations has been demonstrated to depend on having compressed social hierarchies. Indeed, a raft of social pathologies, such as violent crime, have been shown to be linked to steep social gradients and it is impossible to understand the contemporary malaise of subjective wellbeing otherwise.
What is inequality?
Inequality can be seen in various ways, ranging from a denial of individual opportunity to a more structural understanding of inequality of social condition. But the notion that ‘brute-luck’ disadvantage is wrong and that there should be equality of life chances for all can command widespread support.
Inequality has moved up the political agenda in recent times because of the global transition, led by the US and UK in the 1980s, to a ‘neoliberal’ economic regime. Breaking with the Keynesianism practised in western Europe and north America in the early postwar decades, this has returned to an earlier, ‘classical’ presumption that, left to themselves, markets arrive at optimal economic equilibria and the state should therefore withdraw from social steering. The neoliberal era has not only seen the soaring away of top incomes at the expense of those in the lower reaches of the income hierarchy but has also itself been thrown into question by the financial crash of 2008, which no neoclassical economist anticipated.
The new social movements which emerged particularly in the developed world in the 1960s have raised awareness of other kinds of denial of equality of human dignity. Social hierarchies also tend to be stretched by inequalities of gender (and sexual orientation), ethnicity, (dis)ability and age. In particular, feminists have long argued that gender inequality will not go away just because class inequality is being tackled. Patriarchy, they contend, also establishes cross-cutting power relationships.
Social Europe addresses inequality in a number of ways. First, it explores the problem at source, looking at such issues as the declining wage share as income from capital has grown or how patriarchal assumptions about female social roles undermine women’s power in the labour market. Secondly, it looks at solutions, which—continuing these two illustrations—would include reversing the decline of trade-union membership and collective-bargaining rights and sharing domestic labour and improving work-life balance on the other. Thirdly, it discusses the policy options to realise such goals, such as more progressive taxation of high income and wealth and broader and deeper welfare states, and how political coalitions can be assembled to advance them—including on the Europe-wide stage.