Davos Is Failing on Inequality - And So Are We
The number of millionaires at the annual Davos meeting makes this the perfect moment to bemoan global inequality. Oxfam used the event to release shocking statistics on the number of people who have as much wealth as the poorest half of the human population – which now stands at just 42. The problem is that we’ve been going through this media cycle for years, and inequality is only getting worse. If we are ever going to move from rhetoric to policy action, we are going to have to go beyond the headlines and get to grips with the deep social fractures that maintain the conditions that allow inequality to prosper.
Perhaps most importantly, the effects of economic inequality stretch beyond mere income and wealth. These initial segregations are further exacerbated by the stigma and prejudices that we construct across the intersections of class, race and gender (amongst others). Our beliefs about inequality are thus inextricably tied to a number of other phenomena. Our income and wealth are not distinguishable upon sight, yet we transmit them through our speech and behaviour, our possessions and homes, our professions and social circles.
For instance, I’m often met with a pained expression when I tell people my family has moved from London to Milton Keynes. The grimaces and occasional laughter, of which I am also complicit, reflect consequences of inequality that are crucially important but habitually missing from contemporary debates.
The famous sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once argued that “the arbitrary principles of prevailing classifications” enable certain segments of society to dominate others. These classifications can refer to the way we talk, the clothes we wear or the places we live. Drinking in a Wetherspoons in Milton Keynes, you’re inferior to those in Frank’s Café in Peckham. Working in finance in London, you’re better than someone on a shop floor in Walsall. Travelling working-class England almost a century ago, Orwell summarised this perfectly: “Your snobbishness, unless you persistently root it out like the bindweed it is, sticks by you until the grave.”
Further still, the media plays a key role in reinforcing these divisions. The rise of poverty porn, for example, demonises those on lower incomes as lazy, undeserving scroungers. These representations not only contravene academic accounts of precarity but marginalise the structural nature of inequality. Piketty’s now famous work has shown that inequality is the outcome of ‘fully-functioning’ markets.
This matters because these narratives affect our own belief systems and the opinions of others. Experimental research has shown that primed with certain information, we evoke judgements based on previously held beliefs and biases. In one instance, two groups of people were shown a video of the same child taking a test, one group were told that the child was of a low socioeconomic status, the other that it was high. The former group consequently graded her ability as lower, whilst the latter graded it as higher.
This is known as confirmation bias, the existence of which has been noted for centuries. Francis Bacon wrote about it in 1620: “The human understanding once adopted an opinion… draws all things to support and agree with it.” More recently, Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote of the ‘What You See Is All There Is’ dynamic. His argument rests on the fact that our cognitive processes continually look for shortcuts and filter information that is compatible with currently-held beliefs.
All of this reinforces the fact that our lives are increasingly dominated by the economic divisions before us. With inequality worsening in the UK, government rhetoric that promotes an ‘economy that works for all’ is increasingly just seen as such. Tackling inequality begins with a shift away from a culture that worships wealth and demonises those on lower incomes. Nothing is more emblematic of this than the fact the UK population wants action on inequality but still views those who avoid tax more favourably than those who claim benefits.
While Beverley Skeggs once wrote of the “emotional politics of class”, I argue that it is time for an emotional politics of economic inequality. We undoubtedly challenge Donald Trump when he calls African countries ‘shitholes,’ but we must also challenge ourselves and others when we judge people and places in the UK that are deemed lesser than our own. These arbitrary classifications are the pernicious by-product of inequality - they get under our skin without realising it. This inherent belief that some are better than others is a key stumbling block on the road to a more equal society.