There is a need for new approaches to expand contemporary research on global inequalities. This volume supplements the quantitative research literature with new qualitative case studies. Economists have mainly studied global inequalities using quantitative methods. By contrast, many studies from other branches of the social sciences and the humanities have often used qualitative methods, as when anthropologists have focused on intersections between the global and the local.Footnote 83 For example, the anthropologist June Nash has studied how the historic disadvantages of indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico, were deepened by neoliberal economic policies in the 1980s.Footnote 84 Similarly, this book focuses mainly on qualitative studies of global inequalities. It does so mostly by assessing important actors, ranging from international organizations to economists to human rights activists, and from philosophers to statisticians to tea farmers.
Indeed, where economists have searched for structural explanations for global inequalities, this book supplements this research perspective by incorporating more actor-based studies. Economists have focused on structures and structural explanations for economic inequalities, such as Thomas Piketty’s famous r>g “law of capitalism.”Footnote 85 Historians and others have also provided structural explanations. But they have also looked into the roles of specific actors, of concepts, political ideologies, and culture. A key purpose of this volume is to address these aspects and to include an actor-centred view on how particular historical agents have acted on global inequalities. Examples from this volume include work on international organizations such as the UN (see chapters by Christiansen, Jensen and van Trigt), international movements such as Occupy Wall Street or the Global Justice Movement (see the chapter by Ramos Pinto) and the fair trade movement (see the chapter by van Dam). Other examples include the claiming of human rights for all people and the claiming of rights for particular groups such as persons with disabilities (see the chapters by Dehm and van Trigt).
Another key thought behind this book follows an important insight into research on global inequalities, in that it shares a multidimensional approach to global inequalities. Sociologists have pointed to the need for a multidisciplinary approach to global inequalities.Footnote 86 Economic inequality can be separated out for analytical purposes, but it is very likely to intersect with other kinds of inequality and social and cultural factors. As Robert J. Holton notes, “inequality is generated within society, not simply within the economy.”Footnote 87 Indeed, two main findings inform the recent sociology of global inequality, namely the multidimensionality of inequality and the multicausality of inequality.Footnote 88 Going beyond class and methodological nationalism, sociologists have pointed out how inequality cuts across a number of additional spheres. As Sylvia Walby points out, “complex inequalities” include “gender, class, ethnicity, race, religion, nation, linguistic community, able-bodiedness, sexual orientation, and age.”Footnote 89 They may cut across the spheres of the economic, the political, the social, civil society and violence in society.Footnote 90 The concept of multidimensionality is linked to the concept of intersectionality mentioned in the above, where inequality of one kind affects another, often in “reinforcing and overlapping ways,” as, for example, gender inequality is economic, political, and social inequality (see the chapter by Kitch in this volume).Footnote 91 Furthermore, in Walby’s view there is often multicausality at play in shaping inequalities of various kinds. In her view, it is unsound to search for one causal factor, be it capitalism or globalization, as the one fundamental cause of inequality. While multicausality is perhaps not particularly surprising, given that economists acknowledge complexity but still try to find “weighted explanations,” these findings have had important repercussions for research on global inequalities and some of the most salient themes.
The turn towards more historical and qualitatively oriented studies, then, also means supplementing the search for one overarching explanatory variable with other causal factors. In the epistemology of the current research literature, there is a continuum ranging from mono-causality and a high degree of theoretical generalization at one end of the spectrum, moving towards local understandings, singularity, and uniqueness at the other end. As the example with Piketty’s famous formula illustrates, there is some evidence that suggests that economists have leaned towards the natural science ideal of a nomothetic epistemology (striving towards finding the singular most important causal factor), even if Piketty himself called for a more historical approach which incorporated other methods and sources than those of quantitative economics.Footnote 92 With some strands of economics at one end of this spectrum and some strands of anthropology at the other, the sociology of global inequality—or often in this literature: global inequalities—occupies a space in the middle.Footnote 93 In this book, we may not have identified new singular explanatory variables, but we have aimed for historical case studies that identify more local explanations and take into consideration other explanatory variables of a more political, cultural, and actor-centred kind.
In a broader sense, the turn towards more historical- and qualitatively oriented studies also means looking at new and different kinds of empirical sources. In this book, they most certainly range very broadly: from philosophical treatises to United Nations archives, from fair trade campaigns to “emerging markets” commercials. Besides a comparative historical approach to the trajectories of different countries, Piketty himself suggested incorporating works of literature. His own literary examples in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, however, served pedagogical and stylistic purposes rather than adding scientific value to his main arguments. In that respect, they point more to an interesting avenue for future research: writing the histories of how inequality has figured in (world) literature.Footnote 94
This book highlights the political aspects of the history of global inequalities. In doing so, it contrasts sharply with the developmentalist paradigm that we find in some parts of the literature on global inequality in economics. Where many new histories of global inequality point to its deeper political origins, the developmentalist framework tends to depoliticize inequality. One comparison will illustrate this. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton in his The Great Escape mainly finds divergence not convergence between rich and poor countries. His explanation is primarily institutional. Deaton writes:
as Robert Solow showed in one of the most famous papers in all of economics, average living standards should draw closer over time. Why this has not happened is a central question in economics. Perhaps the best answer is that poor countries lack the institutions—government capacity, a functioning legal and tax system, security of property rights, and traditions of trust—that are a necessary background for growth to take place.Footnote 95
then couples his institutional explanation together with a critique of foreign aid.Footnote 96 By pointing to the role of institutions and of institutional choices within poor countries themselves, Deaton mainly operates within a developmental paradigm. Indeed, ever since the Enlightenment era, and especially after World War II, inequality between rich and poor nations was often conceptualized in terms of “development” and of differential “stages” of progress.Footnote 97 Within this “developmental paradigm,” the level of wealth or poverty in a country is mainly a function of its own policies. These determine whether country A or B can “climb the ladder.”
But where some historians of global inequality have operated mainly within the developmental paradigm, assuming the “singularity” of individual nations and the individual choices they can make, others have instead stressed the interconnectedness of richness and poverty. They argue, instead, that there is an intrinsic link between some countries being poor and other countries being rich. They stress that global inequality is mainly a result of unequal power structures embedded into the modern international system of nation states with capitalist economies. And they point to the deep legacies of colonialism and to the historical ability of strong states to set up trade rules, tariffs, and so on favourable to themselves, while preaching “free trade” to others. As Simon Reid-Henry points out, “The modern era of globalisation was inaugurated on distinctly uneven terms.”Footnote 98 From the perspectives of these histories of global inequality, the root causes of global inequality are political rather than merely economic, geographical, or a function of institutional design.Footnote 99 In order to explain global inequality, they have pointed to the political history of colonialism and imperialism up until World War II, and to various key events in the post-war era: from the rise of the Global South as a political project and its lack of success, to the economic warfare against the South in the 1970s, to the changing global geography of production since the 1970s.Footnote 100 These political histories yield a very different—and much needed—perspective on global inequality than the developmentalist framework.
This book contributes to current research by investigating themes that have received relatively little attention in the literature so far. Existing research on inequality has looked at inequality in relation to different themes, an obvious example being the relationship between capitalism and inequality. Does capitalism lead to more inequality? While plenty of research shows that there is indeed a deep relationship between the two, others have pointed to the varieties of capitalism one finds in different countries and regions.Footnote 101 As Göran Therborn notes, capitalism can be “taught how to behave.”Footnote 102 Similarly, the relationship between inequality and globalization also defies simplistic narratives. Some scholars have suggested disentangling different kinds of processes typically associated with globalization, leading to new, nuanced, and fascinating insights into the effects of, for example, trade or direct foreign investment on global inequality.Footnote 103 Along similar lines, it is misleading to equate globalization with neoliberalism, not least because globalization also involves the rise of new forms of global civil society organizations and global governance that are concerned with social democracy and environmentalism.Footnote 104
The history of statistics, economics, international organizations, and of legitimization are important themes to explore further in the context of global inequalities. The history of statistics on inequality and the history of economics are important fields of inquiry (see Cook, Lepenies, and Pinto in this volume). Similarly, the relationship between the UN and global inequalities deserves closer attention (see the chapters by Christiansen, Jensen and van Trigt in this volume). The United Nations as a crossroads of global politics and diplomacy simply operates with a different temporality or chronology when it comes to how it has addressed global inequalities since 1945. It is a rich source for debate, analysis, and contestation over the nature of these inequalities and it challenges chronologies based on domestic political developments, public debates, and academic research. The United Nations had had a distinct renewed engagement with the problem of global inequality for several years before the financial crisis of 2008 sparked a worldwide emphasis on the question.Footnote 105
Only to a limited extent has historical research on inequality examined the relationships between inequality and legitimization.Footnote 106 How are modern inequalities justified? Historically and today, rising levels of various kinds of inequality have often been accompanied by justifications of inequality, such as trickle-down economics, marginal productivity theory, “scientific” racism, and so on.Footnote 107 The Western world has witnessed a remarkable change towards an increased justification of economic inequality after the 1970s. If gender and racial inequality were increasingly delegitimized in post-war languages on inequality, which vocabularies—besides the perhaps obvious neoliberal ones—have been used to legitimize high levels of economic inequality? Critiques of rising inequality have been met with new defences of inequality by leading economists such as Gregory Mankiw.Footnote 108 Where recent research has shown that economic inequality is extremely resilient, perhaps one additional reason for this resilience is its strong ideological support.Footnote 109 How, for example, are recent increases in inequality levels in countries such as China, India, or Ghana legitimized? Do they form part of a global pattern in which countries are becoming more accepting of high levels of inequality? Contributions to this book, such as those by Christiansen, Thompson, and Ravinder Kaur, highlight the importance of how words, concepts, and ideas structure and legitimize inequalities.
Above all, of course, this book offers a historical approach to global inequalities. Recently, mapping and explaining the longer history of world economic development and inequality has been a key endeavour for bestselling economists such as Thomas Piketty and Angus Maddison and historian Walter Scheidel.Footnote 110 Geographers, anthropologists, and others have also taken on a historical approach to their mappings of global inequality.Footnote 111 They have done so with often very different results, readings, and assessments of the history of global inequality.
The value of a historical perspective on inequalities, however, still merits more attention. The historical approach has the merit of comparing and judging developments over a long time span, thereby contributing with a unique sense of orientation in the context of present-day arrangements. It can also point to the existence of important path dependencies that also defy simplistic accounts of inequalities, such as global capital accumulation. Research has demonstrated the deep histories and long-term impacts of colonialism, imperialism, racism, and slavery on present-day inequalities (see the chapter by Saeteurn in this volume).Footnote 112 For example, studies have documented the long-term impacts of slavery in the mid-nineteenth-century United States on white-black inequality in the United States today, as well as the impact of the slave trade on African countries today.Footnote 113 Another set of examples are the deep histories of various kinds of original accumulation, such as the long-term effects of enclosures, land grabbing and the dispossession, displacement and destruction of indigenous peoples. A further set of examples include long-lasting effects of Cold War politics on colonial and postcolonial countries. Against the simplistic view that poor countries simply need to tighten up their institutional design (cf. the critique of the developmentalist paradigm in the above), there is a need for an acknowledgment of long-term effects on governance, corruption levels, and so on derivative from meddling with the political system or outright support of coup d’états in other countries. Methodological nationalism fails to take into consideration the dynamics of international politics that have shaped the trajectories of nation states.
This is not to say that a global historical perspective on inequality is not without its pitfalls. The analytical value of the very terms “global” and “globalization” has been of much debate among historians. Is the whole world or globe the best analytical frame to address some of the many inequalities that transcend national boundaries? Or, to paraphrase Frederick Cooper: how global should the histories of global inequalities be?Footnote 114 While a global perspective on inequality can bring in many new voices and enable the study of inequality patterns that go beyond nation states, and so on, there are also limitations to viewing inequalities through a global lens. It can become too morally loaded, implying that it is, a priori, better than other, more limited investigations. A global lens may overemphasize relations and connections that are there, but are weaker than other, more specific national, transnational, or regional connections. The concept of the global may downplay other important international, transnational, or regional frameworks, such as the still vast inequalities between North and South. The global or planetary brings new insights to life but it should not be at the expense of other analytical frames which, at times, are closer to the historical realities of inequalities.
Bearing these reservations in mind, there are indeed a number of themes and analytical perspectives unique to a historical approach to global inequalities.Footnote 115 These include making international, transnational, and global comparisons, examining inequalities across national borders with a comparative perspective. They include studying international, transnational, and global entangled histories, that is, where inequalities are directly linked to one another. They include studying the use of particular concepts in addressing inequalities, and how specific actors operated with these concepts. They include studying past constructions of asymmetrical relationships between different cultures or groups, such as in studies of gender, race, and ethnicity. They include studying how inequalities were shaped, discussed, and conceptualized across a broad range of geographical areas, dimensions, and various kinds of literature and materials in order to unpack the many different dimensions and faces of global inequalities which cannot be covered by statistics and numbers.
As this volume demonstrates, there is ample space for more historical research on global inequalities. This is also the case for what concerns some important themes which this volume has not addressed—but where promising research is being made—such as the relationships between inequalities and taxation, tax havens, climate change, oligarchy, and elites.Footnote 116 Historical research on global inequality is not at the beginning. Neither is it at anywhere near an end.
Current levels of inequality are at a grotesque level. The new “Gilded Age” of global inequality needs new histories that can help us better understand how we got here—and where we can go from here.